As Mitt Romney kicked-off the first barnstorming tour of his general election campaign, the heavily choreographed start of his five-day bus trip ended up undercut by the man he hopes to unseat -- President Barack Obama.
The president’s announcement yesterday that his administration would stop deporting hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought to the country as children pushed the immigration debate into the campaign spotlight, causing Romney to soften his rhetoric on an issue he’s largely skirted since locking down the Republican presidential nomination.
After refusing to answer questions about the new policy during much of the day he spent in New Hampshire, Romney emerged from his campaign bus late in the afternoon to tell reporters Obama’s move complicates efforts to craft a “long-term solution” providing “certainty and clarity” to the children of illegal immigrants.
Romney said he would prefer a legislative solution, without offering details on what that might be, and refused to say whether he would reverse Obama’s decision if elected.
“We have to find a long-term solution, but the president’s action makes reaching a long-term solution more difficult,” Romney said in Milford, New Hampshire. “If I’m president we’ll do our very best to have that kind of long-term solution.”
The statement was a departure from his rhetoric during the Republican primary campaign, when Romney differentiated himself from some of his rivals by taking a hard line on immigration issues.
In debates during the Republican race, he criticized opponent Texas Governor Rick Perry for backing a law allowing illegal immigrant students to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities, and attacked former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich for saying deportation should be avoided for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for decades.
Romney has said he opposes any proposal giving legal status to undocumented immigrants without first requiring that they leave the U.S. He’s vowed to veto legislation -- known as the Dream Act -- that would grant young illegal immigrants who went to college or served in the military a pathway to citizenship.
He hasn’t spotlighted those positions now that he is trying to win Latino voters, a pivotal bloc in swing states including Florida, Colorado and Nevada. Obama won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote nationwide in his 2008 presidential victory, according to exit polling.
Romney’s refusal to address the immigration issue in front of voters in New Hampshire perturbed one who attended an event in Milford.
“He told me, ‘I’m not familiar with that,” said Rachel Swinford, a Republican from New Boston, New Hampshire, who asked Romney his opinion on Obama’s decision after the event. “I’m not happy.”
With most national polls showing the presidential match-up a dead-heat, Obama campaign officials are counting on strong support from Hispanic voters to give the president an edge. Romney’s campaign has sought to woo Hispanics by emphasizing jobs and economic issues, his candidacy’s central theme.
Speaking in the morning in Stratham, New Hampshire, Romney kept his remarks focused on the economy, casting Obama as “detached and distant” from the economic struggles of average Americas.
“If there has ever been a president who has failed to give the middle class of America a fair shot, it is Barack Obama,” he told a crowd of 500 supporters at the farm where he began his White House bid in June a year ago.
The attack was a direct response to Democrats, who say Obama’s policies help give all Americans a “fair shot.”
Dubbed the “Every Town Counts Tour,” Romney’s trip targets undecided voters living in the smaller cities and towns that dot six pivotal states in his battle with Obama.
After New Hampshire, Romney will continue through five more states -- Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- that all were won by Obama four years ago. Romney aides say the tour will focus on areas struggling economically, difficulties Romney attributes to Obama policies.
“This is an opportunity to go to places that are little bit off the beaten path and visit towns and cities where people are really struggling in this Obama economy,” strategist Russ Schriefer told reporters at Romney campaign headquarters in Boston during a pre-tour briefing yesterday.
The trip also marks a return to the type of retail campaigning Romney did during his quest for his party’s nomination. Since he effectively secured it in April, the former Massachusetts governor has maintained a limited public schedule. Most of his time has been spent in closed-door meetings, with small business-owners in swing states, donors at fundraisers and strategy meetings with other Republicans.
On his tour, he plans to shake hands and kiss babies at pancake breakfasts and hamburger lunches in at least 14 small towns and cities.
In Milford, Romney hosted an “ice cream social,” greeting voters in a town square as a brass band entertained the crowd with polka music.
The campaign has chartered four new buses, plastered with “Every Town Counts” slogan on their sides, for the event. Chartered planes also will help transport the campaign and press corps from state to state, allowing the candidate to cover hundreds of miles in less than a week.
At yesterday’s opening rally in Stratham, Romney read from teleprompters set up on a small podium. A 30-foot crane paid for by the campaign rose out of the hay bales arranged as a backdrop to shoot footage for future television ads.
During the primary, Romney struggled to win support from Republicans in rural areas, who exit polls showed favored former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Now, Romney is working to consolidate his party’s base while also reaching out to independent voters who may have voted for Obama in 2008 and are now frustrated with the slow pace of the economy recovery.
“I have a simple message,” he said yesterday. “Hold on a little longer. A better America begins today!”
Obama’s campaign attacked Romney, saying he’s promoting “failed” policies that benefit a few rich taxpayers.
“This middle-class-under-the-bus tour is going to give us a chance to highlight those differences,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, who will serve as chairman of September’s Democratic National Convention, told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
Romney’s bus trip offers him and his strategists an opportunity to audition potential running mates. Republicans joining him on the tour include former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, an early rival in the Republican presidential fight, and Ohio Senator Rob Portman, each considered top vice presidential prospects.
Romney also plans to share a hamburger with U.S. House Speaker John Boehner in the Republican lawmaker’s home state of Ohio.
MoveOn.org, an activist group backing Obama, plans to trail the Romney camp in what the group dubs the “Romneymobile” -- a Cadillac with NASCAR-style corporate decals and a fake dog on top. The vehicle is meant to call attention to the widely cited story of Romney driving to a family vacation with his dog locked in a crate strapped to the top of his car, as well as references he has made this year to his wife driving “a couple of Cadillacs” and his friendships with NASCAR owners.
At the Stratham event, two planes circled overhead with dueling banners, “Romney for President 2012” and “Romney’s every millionaire counts tour.”