SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney sounded an awful lot like a third-time presidential candidate Wednesday, telling an enthusiastic crowd the nation has problems like debt and poverty that aren't being addressed.
But Romney stopped short of saying whether he has decided to make another run for the White House after losing the Republican nomination to Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008 and the presidency to President Barack Obama in 2012.
At an Abravanel Hall event billed as "A Night With Mitt Romney: Learning to Navigate Today's Economy," Romney reminisced about leading the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City before shifting to more serious subjects.
"Go Mitt," a woman shouted during a question and answer session with Romney that focused on personal observations and business advice but not his political future. "That was my daughter," Romney joked.
During his speech, he said he wanted to explain why someone runs for public office, about as close as he came during more than an hour onstage to talking about another bid.
"It relates to the conclusion that I have, that the major challenges that this country faces are not being dealt with by leaders in Washington," Romney said. "Both sides of the aisle, we just haven't been able to take on and try and make progress on the major issues of our day."
Starting with the nation's $18 trillion debt, Romney used a series of charts and graphs to warn the nation's financial situation "could get worse" as interest rates rise and the spiraling debt climbs another $750 billion annually.
He also tackled climate change, describing himself as "one of those Republicans" who believe the world is getting warmer and people contribute to the temperature changes and calling for "real leadership" to deal with coal emissions.
Poverty and helping the middle class, topics Romney has started talking about since acknowledging to a group of donors recently he was considering getting in the 2016 race for president, were brought up several times.
"Let's deal with poverty. Have we done it? No," he said to applause, citing limited changes in the numbers of Americans living in poverty. "It's just a crime to these poor families who deserve better."
The solution, he said, is to remove disincentives to marriage while helping break the cycle of intergenerational poverty by helping people find ways to finish their education and enter the workforce.
What won't work, Romney said, is taking money from the wealthy to help the poor.
"I'm all for helping people who need help and giving them a lifting hand," he said, but a better way is encouraging economic opportunity.
"The rich do just fine," Romney said later, adding that he believes "free enterprise and the principles of conservatism create more good jobs."
Asked about the president's State of the Union speech Tuesday, Romney said he liked that Obama talked about the middle class. But he said in many cases, the president's proposals "are not going to create more opportunity."
What was "most unfortunate" about the president's annual speech, Romney said, was the lack of emphasis on the "very serious threat" the world faces from radical jihadism and Iran.
Earlier Wednesday, Romney attended a private dinner at the hall, posing for pictures with VIP guests in the lobby, then spoke to Utah Valley University business school students at another event off-limits to the public and media.
Scott Keller, who hosted a fundraiser for Romney at his Bountiful home during the 2012 campaign, said there was no mention from Romney about another presidential run at the private dinner.
But Keller said Romney offered a glimpse of something voters should have seen more of on the campaign trail, his personal faith. Romney, he said, talked about learning the value of observing the Sabbath as a law student.
"Mitt was overcoached in the last campaign," Keller said. "I'm saying that's the side the country needs to see. They need to see work is work. Family is family."
Gov. Gary Herbert, who also addressed the concert hall auditorium, talked about the state's successes in the business world, not Romney's political future.
The New York Times reported late Wednesday that Romney is scheduled to meet in Utah with a would-be rival in 2016, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The newspaper said the meeting was initiated by Bush before Romney expressed interest in a possible run and raises speculation that the pair may find a way to avoid splitting the GOP establishment next year.
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