KEENE, N.H. — A softer Mitt Romney returned to the campaign trail here Wednesday, interrupting his full-throated assault on President Obama with warm personal stories and trying to present his private-equity career through a friendly lens.
As Democrats and his chief Republican rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, began to sew a narrative of Romney as a heartless hedge-fund titan, Romney sought to introduce himself to a capacity crowd of about 250 in a town hall meeting here as a warm businessman.
Without any prompting, the national frontrunner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination brought up his controversial remarks during a testy appearance this month at the Iowa State Fair’s soapbox. When a heckler urged Romney to raise taxes on corporations that have benefited from loopholes in the tax code, Romney said, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
At Wednesday’s town hall, Romney said: “Corporations — they’re made up of people. They’re just groups of people that come together for work. When you say tax corporations — the steel and the vinyl and the concrete, they don’t pay taxes. Only people do.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who earlier in his life founded Bain Capital, a private equity firm, repeatedly defended the corporate world.
“I know there are people that don’t like business,” he said. “I like business. . . . If we go into attacking one another as Americans and criticizing and scapegoating businesses or enterprise or even the financial-services sector or banks, if we find people to go after, we will fall divided.”
Last week in Iowa, Perry seemed to attack Romney when he said he understood free market principles even though he “wasn’t on Wall Street” and “wasn’t working at Bain Capital.” And in an interview last week with The Washington Post, Perry’s chief strategist, David Carney, went further, saying, “I don’t think the country is looking for somebody to be a buyout specialist.”
During the one-hour town hall meeting, Romney never mentioned Perry by name. But he drew a clear contrast with the longtime Texas governor when he said: “I’m a business guy. I’m a conservative businessman. I’m not a lifelong politician. I spent four years in government. I joke that I didn’t inhale. I’m still a business guy.”
Romney was opening two days of busy campaigning across New Hampshire. Earlier Wednesday, he announced the endorsements of several key figures, including former congressman Vin Weber, who had been national co-chairman of Tim Pawlenty’s now-defunct presidential campaign.
At the event here, Romney stood in the Keene Recreation Center, in front of a forest-green Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees scoreboard painted on the cinder block wall, and wove jokes and warm anecdotes throughout his stump speech and answers.
Romney said his father would take him — and later Romney’s children — on cross-country road trips to visit national parks.
“As we went from park to park and we saw the beauty of the land,” Romney recalled, “I knew he wasn’t just teaching my kids and me about the beauty of America — the majesty of our mountains, the power of our rivers and lakes and canyons and so forth. He was also teaching us about the character of the men and women of this country.”
Romney cited the 19th-century poet Sam Walter Foss — from Candia, N.H. — who wrote, “Bring me men to match my mountains, bring me men to match my plains, men with empires in their purpose and new eras in their brains.”
Then, Romney said: “We have changed the world as a people, and we have created new empires of economic vitality and thought and discovery. We’ve gone to the moon. We were the first to fly across the ocean. We’ve invented the Internet — Al Gore, thank you. America has done as [Foss had] imagined.”
The candidate’s musings won him at least one new fan. About 44 minutes into the program, an elderly woman rose with a comment. She said she watches CNN and Fox News each night before bed.
“They said you were so quiet and you couldn’t laugh at a joke,” she told Romney. “Well, they’ve been 100 percent wrong.”
The crowd laughed, and Romney gestured to her and said, “Would you all say hi to my Aunt Mildred?”
Of course, she was not his aunt. And her name apparently isn’t Mildred.
By the time Romney bade farewell to the crowd, another, older woman leapt to her feet. Lucy Opal, 83, who immigrated from Poland in the 1950s, pulled out her red autograph book and showed Romney the autograph of his father, George Romney, the former Michigan governor and one-time presidential candidate, dated April 1969.
“My dad was the real deal,” Mitt Romney told her.
Later, she told reporters she liked Mitt, too.
“I liked his smile,” she said. “He came through human-like.”
By then, the human-like White House hopeful was making his way to his next stop — still smiling.
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