HOPKINTON, N.H. — On the eve of Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate, Mitt Romney shopped for votes in a quaint country store and cast himself as a champion of the middle class. Jon Huntsman Jr. released his foreign policy agenda. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum journeyed from town to town searching for some spark to ignite their struggling campaigns.
But the candidate with perhaps the most at stake in the Washington Post-Bloomberg News debate at Dartmouth College was nowhere to be found. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was holed up somewhere — studying, rehearsing and hoping for a performance to breathe new life into a campaign beset by a series of unsteady debate performances in September.
While Perry was absent from the trail Monday, his campaign was affecting the discourse.
Even as Romney tried to look past his Republican rivals and train his attention on President Obama, a tough new Web video released Monday by Perry’s campaign served as a preview of what Romney is likely to face on the debate stage.
Perry’s video, “Romney’s Remedy,” was perhaps the harshest attack in the 2012 contest on Romney’s Massachusetts health-care law. Set to doomsday music, the video includes an endorsement of the plan by Democratic former president Jimmy Carter and a shout-out by Obama and it closes by adapting one of Obama’s 2008 campaign slogans for Romney: “Romney: change you can believe in?”
But that wasn’t all. Perry attacked Romney’s personal wealth, too, saying: “Even the richest man can’t buy back his past.” The video includes footage of the late NBC News star Tim Russert wielding a pair of flip flops to make the point that, over the course of his political career, Romney has changed his positions on several key issues.
Romney did not directly respond to the Perry attacks but said at one town hall meeting that “there’s a little ad that’s out there today,” adding that it was an example of political “obfuscation and bewilderment.”
The Romney-Perry skirmish comes as Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the nation’s economy, which the candidates will be asked to address in Tuesday’s forum. Most Americans see a 2008-style financial crisis on the horizon, and —reflecting the deep partisan divide in the country — there is no consensus about whether a Republican administration or a second term for Obama would improve the rough economic situation, according to a new Washington Post-Bloomberg News poll.
In the survey, about 22 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say Romney would do the most to improve the economy, followed by businessman Herman Cain at 20 percent and Perry at 12 percent, with none of the other top candidates cracking double digits on the question.
Romney, in a departure from recent practice, did not directly talk about any of his GOP opponents, instead taking snipe after snipe at Obama. He tried to project the sense that he is the best fit to face the president in next year's general election.
“It’s the ‘Where’s Waldo?’ economy. Your chances of finding a good job with good pay are not as good as finding Waldo in one of his books,” Romney said at an evening town hall meeting here in Hopkinton, referring to the children’s book series.
Earlier, during a 50-minute gathering at a steamy Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Milford, Romney accused Obama of trying to divide the country to win reelection.
“I’ve been really disappointed and, in some respects a little bit frightened, by the president’s rhetoric — this class warfare, looking for someone to blame,” he said.
Romney said he, not Obama, has working people’s interests at heart.
“Look, I’m not running for the rich people,” he said. “Rich people can take care of themselves. They’re doing just fine. I’m running for middle-class Americans. . . . I want to help the people who’ve been hurt by the Obama economy.”
But it was another issue — his faith — that continued to flare up on Monday. The Rev. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a Texas evangelical megachurch and a Perry backer who told reporters Friday that Mormons were not Christians and that Mormonism was “a cult,” repeated his claims on Monday.
“There are people out there who want to try to paint me as the Jeremiah Wright of the right,” Jeffress said on MSNBC. “My comments are not fanatical. It’s just true that Mormonism is not a part of historical Christianity.”
Huntsman, a former Utah governor who also is a Mormon, called on Perry to condemn the remarks.
“The fact that some moron can stand up and make a comment like that — first of all, it’s outrageous,” Huntsman told CNN in an interview Monday. “This kind of talk, I think, has no home in American politics. Anyone who is associated with someone willing to make those comments ought to stand up and distance themselves in very bold language, and that hasn’t been done. And Rick ought to stand up and do that.”
Perry’s campaign said the governor disagrees with Jeffress, but stopped short of rejecting what he said.
Staff writers Nia-Malika Henderson and polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.