By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney aimed squarely at the Republican center as he launched his economic program on Tuesday, proposing spending cuts and lower taxes and picking well-known party figures as advisers.
The former Massachusetts governor unveiled a 59-point economic plan in a speech in Nevada, promising to cut corporate taxes, reduce federal regulations and get tough with China two days before Democratic President Barack Obama makes a major speech on the U.S. economy and jobs.
Romney also named two top aides of former President George W. Bush to his four-member economic team: Glenn Hubbard, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers from 2001 to 2003, and his successor, Gregory Mankiw.
Romney's plan reflects Republican Party orthodoxy, with an emphasis on cutting taxes and eliminating regulations. He would push for free trade agreements and promote domestic energy production, weaken labor unions, boost worker training, and seek a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.
"High taxes and regulations -- that's basically a mantra for the Republican Party," said David Madland, director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. "This is the heart of the Republican Party."
Romney made bold promises for his 160-page economic program. He said it would grow the U.S. economy at 4 percent per year, each of his first four years in office, and add 11.5 million new jobs.
Despite addressing a weekend rally held by the Tea Party, Romney is distancing himself from candidates who lean farther toward the right, including his main rivals, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
"He's trying to go for the conservative center," said Julian Zelizer, a politics expert at Princeton University.
Republican primary voters will focus on two things -- one is whether they like a candidate's views, but the second is whether he or she can be elected, Zelizer noted.
Romney stands a better chance than Perry or Bachmann of beating Obama, polls show.
"They are not candidates who are going to be the most solid in terms of 'winnability,'" Zelizer said. "That second question (can he beat Obama?) is going to loom large because the anger toward Obama is so intense."
BASHING "CHEATER" CHINA
Romney said he would submit five bills on the economy on his first day in office, including an act implementing long-delayed free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
He also promised to issue five executive orders on his first day, including ordering countervailing duties on Chinese imports if China does not move quickly to float its currency.
"I'll clamp down on the cheaters, and China is the worst example of that. They have manipulated their currency to make their products artificially inexpensive," he said. "... And I will label China as it is, a currency manipulator and I will go after them for stealing our intellectual property."
Romney was the early leader in the race for the Republican nomination to challenge Obama's bid for re-election next year, but has fallen behind Perry in recent polls. Seeking to regain that lost ground, Romney has stressed his record in private business as co-founder of private equity firm Bain Capital.
Obama's job approval ratings have plunged as the country has grappled with a sputtering economy and a 9.1-percent unemployment rate.
Obama's campaign said Romney's plan would enrich corporations at the expense of the middle class.
"Governor Romney repackaged the same old policies that helped create the economic crisis: boosting oil company profits and allowing Wall Street to write its own rules, more tax breaks for large corporations and more tax cuts for the wealthiest while working Americans are forced to carry a greater burden," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
Economists said it was difficult to assess whether Romney's plan would do what he says, when U.S. consumer confidence is weak, depressing demand.
"Having 59 ideas is way too many," said Stephen Fuller of George Mason University. "What we need is two or three really good ideas that resonate, not politically, but look realistic to consumers, so they are going to feel confident."
Polls released on Tuesday showed Americans are unhappy with Obama's handling of the economy and jobs. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Obama's job approval rating at a low of 44 percent. An ABC News/Washington Post poll showed six in 10 Americans rated Obama's performance on the economy and jobs negatively.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)