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Mitt Romney courts tea party movement — with a bit of distance

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Concord, N.H. — Mitt Romney, the former front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, managed to do something Sunday that few of his rivals have done so far: He stood on stage at a tea party rally in front of two tea party buses, gave a 10-minute speech and never once uttered the words “tea” or “party.”

Instead, he stuck to the same message he has delivered across this state over the past few weeks, at house parties and town hall meetings, highlighting his record in the private sector and playing down his former role as the governor of Massachusetts, hoping to capture the anti-establishment fervor of the tea party movement.

“I haven’t spent my whole life in politics. As a matter of fact, of the people running for office, I don’t know that there are many who have less years in politics than me,” he said. “I spent four years as a governor; I joke that I didn’t inhale. I’m still a citizen, I’m still a business person.”

Edged out in national polls by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Romney is now having to engage with the far right wing of his party, yet with an eye on the general election, he must maintain some distance between his campaign and the tea party movement.

On Monday in South Carolina, he will face another tea party crowd at a candidate forum sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint, a conservative kingmaker in the key early state.

His appearance in Concord sparked a backlash among some tea party members who think Romney is out of touch with the movement’s credo of smaller government because of his record on health care.

“We know Mitt Romney. We know what he did in Massachusetts and he shouldn’t be standing on any tea party stage,” said Andrew Hemingway, who heads a statewide tea party group here that staged a counter-demonstration. “He was a big-government governor who was against individual liberty. It’s ridiculous for him to try to make it seem like he’s a tea party guy.”

Aides insist that Romney will not change his message but instead will focus on drawing contrasts with his rivals, who are criticizing him more boldly.

He has taken to calling his rivals “career politicians” and said that his record in the private sector sets him apart.

“We had last month zero job creation. A shutout is okay in baseball; it’s not good when you’re talking about jobs. We have zero confidence, zero faith in a president who created zero jobs,” he said. “It’s time for someone who knows how to create jobs and get our economy going, and that’s something I know. That’s in my wheelhouse and I’ll get America working again.”

In the last poll of Granite State voters taken in July before Perry joined the race, Romney had 35 percent support.

New Hampshire Democrats were eager to link the former governor closely with the tea party movement.

“Romney for months has been courting Tea Partiers with his push for Right to Work for Less, his support for ending Medicare as we know it and his pledge of allegiance to the Tea Party on spending cuts versus revenue increases in an Iowa debate, Ray Buckley, head of the state’s Democratic Party, said in a statement. “Romney’s first official Tea Party appearance tonight is no surprise for those who have been closely following his campaign.”

The candidate bounded on stage surrounded by supporters chanting “Go, Mitt, go!” They interrupted his speech several times with applause.

But he wasn’t without his critics.

Sitting right in front of the stage was “Flip Romney” a man dressed in a dolphin costume who waved yellow flip-flops as Romney addressed the crowd of about 150 people.

Romney has a solid base of support here but is facing a strong challenge from Perry, and a lesser challenge from former Utah governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr., who is staking his White House bid on a good primary showing in New Hampshire.

Romney’s supporters, who sported blue Romney buttons and waved homemade campaign signs, said that he is the only candidate who could jump-start the economy.

“He knows how businesses are suffering and how the American people are suffering and he knows how the private sector works and how to create jobs,” said Joann Sherman, 57, of North Boston. “He’s already been vetted and he is the right guy for the job because he is going to inherit a mess. He believes in everything the tea party stands for.”

If he does, he never said so.

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