Romney begins to court moderates, independents

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during the Tri-State Tax Day Tea Summit April 16, 2012 at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Romney continues his campaign as the presumptive GOP candidate after his closest rival Rick Santorum suspended his campaign last week.
Getty Images/Jessica Kourkounis
Mitt Romney speaks during the Tri-State Tax Day Tea Summit
Mitt Romney
Getty Images/Jessica Kourkounis

(CBS News) BETHEL PARK, Pa. - As Mitt Romney moves from the bruising Republican primary to the general election campaign, he came face to face on Monday with some of the moderate voters whose support he's will need to defeat President Obama in November.

Seated at a picnic table covered with snacks and pitchers of lemonade, Romney met with four married couples who had been invited by a local state senator on behalf of his campaign. The four men and four women, all parents whose party affiliation was not specified, were invited to speak with the like GOP nominee about the issues that are foremost on their minds.

Each one expressed concern about the federal budget deficit and the country's slow economic recovery, with particular apprehension about the future facing their children. But in a sign of their independence and moderate leanings, the couples also voiced concern about the possibility of losing government programs like Medicare and Social Security, about cuts in funding for education, and about parts of the tax system that they said seem to unfairly favor the wealthy.

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Jason Thomas, a Romney supporter and a physician's assistant from Unity Township, told the former Massachusetts governor the he and his wife came from Pennsylvania families of Blue Dog Democrats, a group known for their moderate leanings. He argued that Romney could make inroads with this group if he was willing to take on some of the tax loopholes that favor upper income taxpayers.

"A lot of what could potentially turn off those type of Democratic voters are the folks that are upper income that are deducting taxes paid on their second home, their vacation home," Thomas said. "...That's important to them. They don't want to see General Electric paying zero taxes and them being asked to take a cut in their Medicare benefits."

Elaine Ditoro, a former school bus driver and mother of three, also voiced concern about the rising costs of Medicare facing her 88-year-old grandmother and 92-year-old grandfather, who recently had a stroke. She called their health care costs "astronomical."

"I share the concern," Romney told her, saying it was important to ensure that both Medicare and Social Security are around for those who had paid into the system. He did not go into detail on his proposed changes for both entitlement programs, which include raising the Social Security retirement age and turning Medicare over to the states.

Thomas also said he worried about the finances of the area's public schools, citing large deficits created when the economic stimulus money provided by the federal government ran out.

"Most of the fat has been trimmed from those budgets," Thomas said as others nodded in agreement. "A lot of those costs are fixed. Districts have to pay the teachers enough to earn a decent wage and pay their benefits. Unfortunately now beyond the fat, there are going to be arts programs that are starting to get cut." Thomas said that he would support a raise in taxes to keep his public schools "top notch."

Romney did not address his position on the Department of Education, but in a private fundraiser held in Palm Beach this weekend, he was overheard saying he would "either consolidate with another agency, or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller."

Though he did not offer specifics on which programs he would consider trimming or cutting altogether, Romney did acknowledge to the couples that it would take an increase in revenue to continue funding popular government programs. But he suggested that a Romney administration would achieve this goal, not through tax increases, but rather through job creation.

"That, by the way, brings more tax revenue so people could pay for schools and people could pay for the needs that we have," Romney told the group.

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    Sarah Huisenga is covering the Mitt Romney campaign for CBS News and National Journal.