MANCHESTER, N.H. — They have debated on the same stage five times, but rarely have the contrasts between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry been more in evidence than during separate appearances here Friday night. It was Romney the careful technocrat versus Perry the unplugged preacher.
Their dueling appearances came in disparate forums. Romney held a well-attended town hall meeting, a traditional New Hampshire testing ground for candidates. Perry appeared at a dinner of social conservatives, a constituency that has played a small role in New Hampshire politics but is highly influential in other states.
At this point in the campaign, Perry has lost his standing as the principal challenger to Romney for the Republican nomination, eclipsed by Herman Cain and perhaps others. His early missteps as a candidate have left him with enormous obstacles to overcome, though if he has as much capacity to continue to raise money as he demonstrated initially, those resources will assist him in trying.
The Romney and Perry appearances came at the end of a difficult week for both. Romney was again accused of changing or hedging his positions on climate change and Ohio’s collective-bargaining referendum. The dust-ups played into a character vulnerability that caused him so much trouble four years ago and gives him little room this time for such miscues. Many Republicans still doubt his convictions.
Perry unveiled an economic plan last Tuesday but stepped on that message by wading unexpectedly into the issue of whether President Obama was born in the United States. By Friday, the Texas governor inexplicably suggested that such “birther” talk was being kept alive by people who were trying to distract attention from his economic message, apparently forgetting that it was he who refused to take the issue off the table when given the opportunity.
At his town-hall meeting, Romney appeared in casual pants and an open-collar shirt. He looked weary from nonstop debates, fundraising appearances and campaign events. His opening statement included stories about his father and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His message bent heavily in the direction of the tea party, with much talk about government spending, regulation and the burdens of big government, rather than job creation.
The first question from the audience made reference to Obama and what the questioner described as Obama’s “Marxist and socialist beliefs.” Romney was asked to address the questioner’s concerns about the president’s ideology.
Mindful of the land mines ahead, Romney deftly steered clear of embracing such characterizations. Instead he turned to Ronald Reagan for inspiration. “He said, ‘It’s not that liberals are ignorant, it’s just that what they know is wrong,’ ” Romney said. “And I happen to think that the president’s philosophy and that of the people around him is extraordinarily misguided. I think they take their inspiration from those who believe government knows better than free people how to run our lives and how to build an economy.”