Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney used a visit to Microsoft on Thursday to accuse President Obama of a weak record on global free-trade issues, and said he'd do a better job of protecting America's interests against "cheating" competitors such as China.

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Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney used a visit to Microsoft Thursday to accuse President Obama of a weak record on global free-trade issues, and said he’d do a better job of protecting America’s interests against “cheating” competitors such as China.

Speaking to 200 Microsoft employees at the company’s Redmond headquarters, Romney said he’d push hard to open new markets for American businesses.

He said he’d create a “Reagan economic zone” that would remove trade barriers for like-minded nations that agree to respect intellectual property rights and avoid currency manipulation.

Romney vowed to designate China as a currency manipulator on his first day as president, a step that would impose punitive duties on Chinese imports if leaders there don’t allow their currency, the yuan, to appreciate in value.

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He referred to legislation on the subject now before Congress as mere theater, saying it wasn’t needed for the White House to address the issue.

“We don’t need new legislation. We need a new president,” Romney said to applause from the audience.

He also criticized China for ignoring U.S. copyright laws, accusing it of counterfeiting American designs, technology and pirating software.

“There’s also hacking going on, where Chinese companies or even the government itself, perhaps, hacks into computers to steal technology,” he said.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and business executive, appeared at ease in the corporate setting. It was not his first visit to Microsoft — he also spoke there during his 2008 presidential campaign and said his son had worked there.

Romney drew laughs when he recalled trying to recruit a young Steve Ballmer decades ago, warning Ballmer that his plan to join a software startup was “very high risk.”

When Ballmer, Microsoft’s billionaire chief executive, later reminded him of that meeting, Romney said he told him, “Had you’d joined us, you’d be worth a million or two by now.”

Ballmer and other local tech executives met with Romney at a private round-table discussion before his speech.

Romney told the Microsoft crowd he was worried about some in America who are hostile to business.

“They feel somehow business is bad,” Romney said. “I don’t dislike you — I love you. I appreciate what you do. I appreciate the private sector.”

Romney cast free trade as a national-security issue, saying the U.S. must remain strong to stand up against threats such as China and other “totalitarian” nations. “A nation with a weak economy cannot support a strong military.”

Romney criticized what he views as burdensome government regulations, such as the Dodd-Frank law, the financial-overhaul legislation passed by Congress last year.

He put the blame for the stagnant economy and high unemployment squarely on the Obama administration, citing a recent report that median income for Americans has declined 10 percent in the last few years.

“The consequence of a failed presidency and a weaker economy is severe,” he said.

Romney’s visit drew criticism from Democratic state party Chairman Dwight Pelz, who held a conference call with reporters to blast Romney for recently belittling Obama’s middle-class payroll-tax cut as “a little Band-Aid.”

Pelz said the tax cut saves a typical Washington family $1,800. “That is not a little Band-Aid. That is real tax relief.”

And the Obama campaign mocked Romney for criticizing the president on trade the day after the president had passed three new trade agreements through Congress — with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.

But Romney said Obama had allowed those trade pacts to “languish” for years before sending them to Congress.

A Microsoft spokesperson said Romney’s appearance was organized by the company’s employee PAC and did not signal an endorsement by the company. Microsoft regularly invites notable speakers from both political parties, and Democrats such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Al Gore have visited in the past, the spokesperson said.

Before the Microsoft event, Romney attended a private fundraiser at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Seattle.

That event was hosted by a group of local business and Republican leaders, including wireless magnates John Stanton and Bruce McCaw and former Spokane U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt.

A few dozen Occupy Seattle protesters marched to the Hyatt and stood outside chanting, “We are the 99 percent” and “corporations are not people.”

But they missed Romney, who arrived around noon through a side entrance. Romney declined to comment on the protests as he walked to the private ballroom where guests paid at least $500 to get in and $1,250 for a photo with him.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report. Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628

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