By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's threat to get tough with China about its trade practices increases the odds that China-bashing will permeate a presidential contest to woo U.S. voters seeking a culprit for the nation's economic malaise.
Pledging this week that he would label China a currency manipulator, Romney sought both to outline differences with President Barack Obama and to tap into the U.S. public's rising concern over China's economic and military growth.
Romney's critique, while not shared by all Republican candidates, appears to reflect a growing willingness by some in a party traditionally devoted to free trade to take on China over trade and currency issues.
"Candidates are out there listening to voters, who are talking about these issues and they know that we are getting our lunch eaten by China," said Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which has a major stake in trade with China.
Paul said a poll the group conducted in July showed that Republicans were as strong as Democrats in supporting more assertive U.S. trade policies toward China.
Romney promised Tuesday that one of his initial executive orders on his first day as president would be to "clamp down on the cheaters" by slapping duties on Chinese imports if Beijing doesn't move quickly to float its currency.
"I will label China as it is, a currency manipulator and I will go after them for stealing our intellectual property," he said while unveiling his plan to revive the troubled U.S. economy and create jobs.
Romney's pledge prompted a sharp rebuttal Wednesday from rival candidate Jon Huntsman, who was Obama's ambassador to Beijing and said his rival "doesn't get" the complex Sino-American relationship.
"Mitt, now is not the time in a recession to enter a trade war," Huntsman said during a Republican presidential debate.
"He doesn't get the part that what will fix the U.S-China relationship, realistically, is fixing our core right here at home, because our core is weak, and it is broken, and we have no leverage at the negotiating table."
Polls show Huntsman trailing well behind Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry and congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
While China's growing role in the U.S. economy has brought it greater attention in American politics, "presidential campaigns don't usually lend themselves to intelligent, thoughtful discussion," said a China trade consultant, who requested anonymity.
Comments like Romney's "are generally cost-free at this stage of the race, but they underscore that there are constituencies on both sides of the aisle that feel that China is getting away with far too much by virtue of a range of mercantilist policies," the consultant said.
NO RESPONSE FROM CHINA
Beijing has not issued any public response to Romney's broadside. In the past, it has tended to dismiss such criticism as politically motivated.
Until Romney took aim at Beijing, China lurked in the background of the Republican campaign, in conservative attacks on Vice President Joe Biden's seemingly empathetic remarks about China's one-child policy last month, or as an issue for Huntsman because he spent two years as Obama's ambassador in Beijing.
One obscure Republican candidate, Buddy Roemer, gave a speech on jobs in front of China's embassy in Washington, quipping that Obama's worker retraining program should teach Mandarin because that's where U.S. jobs have gone.
But if Romney's point -- that China suppresses the value of its currency, the yuan, to keep its exports artificially cheap -- sounds familiar, that's because Obama and his rivals were making that argument in the 2007-8 Democratic primary race.
China's expanding economy and growing global clout, its rapidly growing military which in 2011 unveiled both a stealth fighter jet and an aircraft carrier, and its human rights record all cause anxiety for American voters, polls show.
So far the websites and platforms of Republican candidates are very thin on specific trade policies for China.
The threat to force China to allow its currency to float to market rates has also been at the center of proposed U.S. legislation since 2005 that has been repeatedly shelved in favor of negotiations with Beijing.
"President Obama has had five chances to name China as a currency manipulator, which they certainly are, and he's failed five times to do it," said the AMA's Paul.
He was referring to the twice-annual report the Treasury Department submits to Congress on countries deemed to be manipulating their currencies. The Obama administration, like its predecessor, has demurred from naming China as a manipulator.
A spokeswoman for Treasury declined to comment on Romney's proposals on China's currency.
But Paul recalled that an earlier, well-known free-trade Republican did not demur from a tough trade stance.
"President Ronald Reagan was for free markets but he was willing to take on Japan on semi-conductors and, famously, the value of the yen," he said.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)