CLAREMONT, N.H. — All year, he was the nominal front-runner, the weak front-runner, the putative front-runner. On Wednesday, Mitt Romney stopped being the front-runner at all.
“I’m just one of the guys running,” the former Massachusetts governor told reporters here Wednesday.
As Romney returned to the campaign trail this week, he faced a new reality: He is no longer ahead of the pack in the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. A Gallup poll released Wednesday showed Texas Gov. Rick Perry with a sizable lead over Romney among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents nationally, 29 percent to 17 percent.
The survey showed Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) at 13 percent and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) slipping to 10 percent. No other candidate registered in the double digits.
Romney acknowledged that “Rick is a very effective candidate” but insisted that Perry’s presence in the race will not change the way he pursues the nomination.
“You’re going to try and find something that’s changed. I’ve got a dark shirt on today. It was a light shirt yesterday,” Romney quipped to reporters. “Look, I’m following the strategy I’ve had and that we’ve laid out from the very beginning. . . . If you’re running for president, your focus should be on the person who is president and his failures and how you’re going to make America better.”
A softer Romney opened a two-day campaign swing across New Hampshire, interrupting his full-throated assault on President Obama with personal stories and trying to present his private-equity career through a friendly lens.
As Democrats and Perry tried to stitch together a new narrative of him as a heartless hedge-fund titan, Romney sought to introduce himself to voters here as a warm and caring businessman.
Romney, who founded the private equity firm Bain Capital, repeatedly defended the corporate world but repeated his position that corporations are about people.
Without any prompting, he brought up a controversial remark he made during a testy appearance this month at the Iowa State Fair. When a heckler urged him 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 meeting, the candidate 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. . . . I know there are people that don’t like business. I like business.”
At the Keene Recreation Center, Romney stood in front of a forest-green Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees scoreboard painted on a cinder-block wall and wove jokes and anecdotes into his stump speech and answers.
He cited the 19th-century poet Sam Walter Foss of 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.”
Romney added: “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. By the time Romney was ready to leave, Lucy Opal, 83, who emigrated from Poland in the 1950s, leapt to her feet, pulled out a red autograph book and showed Romney the signature of his father, George Romney, a onetime presidential candidate, dated April 1969.
Later, she told reporters she liked Mitt Romney, 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.