PORTLAND – Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney brought supporters to their feet Friday evening at a campaign stop on Portland’s waterfront, where he blasted President Obama’s efforts to reform health care and turn around the economy.

On the eve of Republican caucuses across Maine, where U.S. Rep. Ron Paul poses a significant challenge, Romney pledged his commitment to following the principles of the Constitution as “rights granted by God.”

“We need to take a different course in America,” Romney said. “We need to return to conservative principles.”

Dressed casually in faded jeans, a blue V-neck sweater and a white plaid button-down shirt, Romney touted his experience as a businessman, saying he would cut spending in Washington, D.C., and balance the federal budget.

“I know how to balance budgets because I’ve done it,” Romney said to about 300 people at the town hall-style event, held in an old brick warehouse at The Portland Co. Marine Complex on Fore Street.

He’s expected to attend the Portland caucus today.

Romney jabbed Obama for “launching an assault on religious conviction,” referring to a rule in the health care reform act that will require health insurance plans for employees of religious nonprofits to provide contraception coverage.

“That will end,” Romney said.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has taken a lead role in the national opposition to the rule.

When a woman asked what he would do to generate jobs in Maine, Romney said he would “get the economy going” so more companies would decide to come back to the United States.

Another woman asked what he would do to reduce the burden of student loans on recent college graduates.

Romney said colleges and universities are charging higher tuition because students are able to get larger student loans. He related it to problems in the education system from kindergarten to high school, which he blamed on teachers’ unions, and said he would make sure that higher education is “teaching kids what they need and have jobs when they get out.”

One man asked Romney how he would encourage more charitable giving to reduce dependence on government programs.

“We do a lot of things with government that I love,” Romney said, but he wouldn’t allow the United States to borrow money from China to pay for it.

He said he ended government funding of some charities when he was governor of Massachusetts and suggested that PBS have commercials so Big Bird could “get to know” Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

When one woman asked if Romney would “go after” Obama and change the image of the presidency, Romney said, “My guess is, the first 100 days (in office) will make all the difference.”

Romney said he would grant waivers from “Obamacare” for all 50 states, apply tariffs on Chinese goods, grant leases to promote drilling for oil and gas on public lands, and support efforts to get fuel from the Keystone pipeline and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

He promised strong support for the military to “prevent war,” pledging to increase Navy ship construction from nine to 15 vessels per year and provide veterans with the care they deserve.

Hecklers challenged statements Romney made about the need to reduce government regulation of business, the threat of federal control of individuals’ health care plans and the safety of drilling for natural gas.

“If you don’t want oil from Canada and if you don’t want gas from America, vote for Barack Obama,” Romney said, repeating a suggestion he made earlier in the evening when someone disputed his position on health care reform.

When one woman yelled that underground water supplies have been contaminated by some gas “fracking,” Romney told her, “Don’t get so upset about it. It’s not worth it.”

Romney again explained what he meant recently when he said, “I’m not concerned with the very poor,” and why he has kept money in offshore accounts in what he calls “blind trusts.”

“I pay all the taxes I’m supposed to pay, by the way, and not a dollar more,” Romney said, again drawing cheers.

Romney was introduced by Maine Attorney General William Schneider and Cianbro executive Peter Cianchette, former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica.

The event drew Romney supporters and others who are shopping for a candidate, including Jim and Diane Rose of Camden.

“I was impressed with him,” Jim Rose said after the event. “He said everything he said in the debates. It was good to see him in person.”

Lauren Walsh of Saco was shopping for a candidate, too. She’s concerned about the economy and the job market.

“I’m here hopefully to get rid of Obama,” Walsh said. “Romney might be the man.”

Several demonstrators gathered outside in the cold, including Sarah Standiford of Richmond, regional field manager for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Standiford said Romney has threatened to eliminate the federal family planning program and supports “personhood” legislation that would make certain kinds of birth control illegal.

“Women are watching,” Standiford said. “Women will be voting.” 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com