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Romney surrogate Sununu: 'I wish this president would learn how to be an American'

Updated at 9:51 p.m. ET: The Romney campaign ratcheted up its language on Tuesday in a conference call on which former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff John Sununu said he wished President Obama "would learn how to be an American."

Sununu led a series of Romney surrogates in questioning the president's commitment to economic freedom, dredging up the president's ties to Tony Rezko; another speaker on the conference call said Obama's policies were akin to "socialism."

Mitt Romney listens as former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu endorses him for president outside the Statehouse October 24, 2011 in Concord, New Hampshire.
Mitt Romney listens as former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu endorses him for president outside the Statehouse October 24, 2011 in Concord, New Hampshire./

But it was Sununu's questioning of whether the president understood how to be an American, even after a subsequent walk-back, that made the call feel like part of a late-October attack, and not a story out of what Sununu called the "summer doldrums."

"The president clearly demonstrated that he has absolutely no idea how the American economy functions. The men and women all over America who have worked hard to build these businesses, their businesses from the ground up is how our economy became the envy of the world -- it is the American way," Sununu said in his opening remarks of the conference call.

He added: "I wish this president would learn how to be an American."

The first question to Sununu later in the call was about that comment, which exploded quickly on Twitter for its stark claim about Obama.

"What I thought I said, but I guess I didn't say, is that the president has to learn the American formula for creating business," he said. "If I didn't give all that detail I apologize."

The Obama campaign's Lis Smith said that Sununu's rhetoric represented that the Romney campaign had grown desperate.

“The Romney campaign has officially gone off the deep end," she said. "The question is what else they’ll pull to avoid answering serious questions about Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and investments in foreign tax havens and offshore accounts. This meltdown and over-the-top rhetoric won’t make things better -- it only calls attention to how desperate they are to change the conversation."

Speaking Tuesday with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Sununu said, “Frankly, I made a mistake. I shouldn't have used those words.” But he said he did not apologize for the idea that “this president has demonstrated that he does not understand how jobs are created in America.”

“He thinks that jobs are created by giving grants to your cronies, to your bundlers and your contributors, like he did with Solyndra,” Sununu said.  

When asked whether he was apologizing directly to the president, Sununu said, “Yes, I'm apologizing for using those words. I shouldn’t have used them.”

Despite the walk-back, the tone of the call was consistently negative -- and harshly so -- with Sununu and the four small businesspeople on the call ripping the president's policies, background and campaign tactics.

"He comes out of that murky political world in Chicago where 'politician' and 'felon' have become synonymous," Sununu said at the top of the call.

"As an African American woman, people think I need to vote for Obama because he is black. Well I have been black for a long time and he won't get my vote," said Rene Amoore, a small businesswoman from here in Pennsylvania, adding. "He doesn't know what hard work means."

In defending the campaign's decision to not release more than two years of tax returns, Sununu also provided the kind of aggressive counterpunch that conservatives have been calling on the Romney campaign to throw for weeks, comparing the Democratic and media calls for more returns to be released to the movie "The Neverending Story." 

Asked to respond to a new Obama campaign's ad which suggests Romney might not have paid taxes late in his Bain career, Sununu responded bluntly.

"It just shows how stupid the Obama campaign is," Sununu said, opining that if Romney had not paid taxes the IRS would be "knocking at his door." 

"The Obama campaign has once again demonstrated that they are clearly and unequivocally a bunch of liars," Sununu said, just before the call's operator broke in to say there would be no further questions.