By Sam Youngman and Laura MacInnis
WASHINGTON/REDWOOD CITY, California (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney opened a new front on Wednesday in his fight against President Barack Obama, accusing him of presiding over a failing U.S. education system in the grip of union bosses who refuse to accept reforms.
In a rare diversion from his campaign focus on the weak economy, Romney laid out an education plan in a speech that represented his most overt appeal to date to Hispanic voters who have largely sided with the Democratic incumbent.
Although he trails Obama by a huge margin among Hispanics, Romney's address to a Hispanic business group avoided mentioning a top priority for them: how to overhaul the country's immigration system.
Romney said millions of American children are getting a "third-world education" and offered proposals that he said would reward teachers for their results instead of their seniority. And he would give parents greater choice of where to send their children to school and take other steps to reduce the influence of powerful teachers' unions.
"I believe the president must be troubled by the lack of progress since he took office. Most likely, he would have liked to do more. But the teachers unions are one of the Democrats' biggest donors - and one of the president's biggest campaign supporters. So, President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses - and unwilling to stand up for kids," Romney said.
Meanwhile, at a series of fundraisers , Obama kept hitting at his opponent's record as a job-cutting private equity executive - a prime target for his re-election campaign - and touted his own economic plans to "move the country forward."
"I think he has learned the wrong lessons," Obama told 550 supporters in a hotel ballroom in Denver, taking aim at what he called Romney's bad ideas for the U.S. economy while anti-Obama protesters outside held signs reading "Out of Hope, Ready for Change" and "Bye Bye on November 6th."
"His working assumption is: if CEOs and wealthy investors like him get rich, the rest of us automatically will too," he said, later presenting a similar message to 1,100 supporters in Redwood City, California, near the tech hub Palo Alto.
"We believe in the free market, we believe in risk-taking and innovation. This whole area is built on risk-taking and innovation. But we also understand that it doesn't happen in a vacuum," Obama told the event which featured singer Ben Harper.
"It happens because of outstanding schools and universities, it happens because of a well-regulated financial market, it happens because we have extraordinary infrastructure. It happens for a whole host of reasons. Governor Romney doesn't seem to understand that."
MIDDLE CLASS CONCERNS
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is neck-and-neck with Obama in polls, a prelude to what could be a close vote for the White House in November.
His pivot to education comes during a battle in Washington over student loan programs, with Obama's Democrats pushing for extending low interest rates for federal loans and Republicans calling for careful spending at a time of high deficits.
Wednesday's speech also let him challenge a key pillar of the Obama re-election campaign: that the president is more tuned into middle class concerns, like education, than Romney is.
Focusing on school quality could also resonate well with Hispanic voters who are expected to be critical in the November election, especially in swing states like New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC/Telemundo poll shows Obama leading Romney with Hispanic voters 61 percent to 27 percent, a possible hangover from the Republican primary battle when Romney and other candidates adopted hard-line immigration positions.
Hispanic Republican strategists said Romney was wise to keep his focus on education and the economy on Wednesday, noting that in several polls, Hispanic voters rate those issues well ahead of immigration as the themes they care about most.
"Clearly, it appears that Governor Romney has chosen to focus on what the vast majority of U.S. Hispanics and Latinos feel is of highest priority," said Daniel Garza, from The Libre Initiative non-profit group.
Standing before a banner that read "A Chance for Every Child," Romney laid out an education plan that relies heavily on bolstering and improving the No Child Left Behind education law engineered by Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
Romney made more money and more access to charter schools the centerpiece of his platform, but he launched a strong attack on teachers' unions. "The teachers' unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way," Romney said.
On the first day of his Wednesday-Thursday swing through Colorado, California and Iowa, Obama stressed his efforts to improve education and enhance ties between community colleges and businesses.
He told the Denver fundraiser his goal was that "by the end of this decade more of our citizens hold a college degree than any other nation on Earth." At a private home in Atherton, California, where guests paid $35,800 each to dine with Obama in a Hawaiian-themed tent with a clear roof, he said he "could not be prouder" of his administration's education reform record.
"A lot of it has to do with making sure that higher education is not a luxury," Obama said. "We need more engineers, we need more scientists, we need more Stanford grads, but we also need folks who are going to community colleges and are able to get the skills and the training that they need in order to compete for jobs in the 21st century."
Wednesday's education speech was a welcome break for Romney, who has faced a barrage of accusations from Democrats that he killed blue-collar jobs when he headed Bain Capital, a firm that bought and restructured companies.
But Romney says the company more than made up for job losses by helping to establish companies that became big employers, like the office supplies store Staples. He told Time magazine business experience gave him savvy to fix the economy and he welcomed scrutiny of his record.
"The fact is that I spent 25 years in the private sector. And that obviously teaches you something that you don't learn if you haven't spent any time in the private sector," he said.
While Romney often polls ahead of Obama on the economy, the president's foreign policy credentials weigh in his favor compared to the ex-governor, who has little foreign experience.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell criticized Romney for taking advice from foreign policy advisers who are "quite far to the right," in a sign of lingering strains from his tenure under President George W. Bush.
He also took exception to a recent comment by Romney that Russia is the top U.S. geopolitical threat. "Come on Mitt, think! That isn't the case," Powell said.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Philip Barbara, Xavier Briand, Tim Pearce)