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Riding with Romney

Candidate hits the road to drive home his message

Mitt Romney took to the roads yesterday to make his closing argument to New Hampshire voters ahead of the presidential primary early next month.

The former governor of Massachusetts didn't stray from his economic message during campaign stops in Keene, Newport, Hanover and Ashland. The three-day bus tour, dubbed "Earn It" by the campaign, kicked off during the breakfast hour at the Stage Restaurant in Keene, where Romney stepped off his newly unveiled bus with several high-profile New Hampshire supporters, including U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, U.S. Rep. Charlie Bass and former U.S. senator Judd Gregg. He was guided through a crush of media and observers so thick the restaurant's door couldn't close.

As Romney and half the state's congressional delegation sat quietly, waiting for the candidate to tape an interview on MSNBC, spectators stood craning their necks on the other side of a glass partition. Bill Raymond, a retiree who lives in Jaffrey, said he had come out to hear Romney but wasn't surprised the crowd made that difficult.

"He's a rock star now, so everywhere he goes there are a thousand cameras," Raymond said.

The cameras, along with boom microphones and tape recorders, surrounded Romney at each event. At the day's final campaign stop, the American Legion post in Ashland, the campaign staff made sure photographers and TV producers could get shots of Romney and his wife Ann wearing aprons and serving spaghetti and sauce to a long line of supporters.

In formal remarks and in exchanges with voters, Romney repeated his message that he knows how to create a good environment for businesses that will allow them to grow and create jobs. He got to make the case one on one to an undecided voter, Keene resident Norman MacLeod, after taping a TV appearance at the Stage Restaurant. MacLeod told Romney he recently lost his job at a company that makes bullet-proof vests and asked how people can be encouraged to buy American products.

It was comfortable territory for Romney, who launched into a stripped-down version of his stump speech: cut regulation, cut taxes, utilize the country's natural resources, open new markets for American goods.

"If we make this the best place for business, why then our products will be the best in the world and will be demanded here and around the world," he said. "What we've done instead is made America less and less attractive as a place for businesses to invest."

MacLeod said his industry suffers from excessive government regulation. "What you're saying seems to be the right thing," he told Romney.

While Romney continued selling his business acumen, Ann Romney was on hand to attest to her husband's character. In the cafeteria of a manufacturing company in Hanover, after Romney introduced her as "my sweetheart," she took the microphone to tell workers and reporters about her husband.

"There's one thing that I can talk about that no one else can talk about, and that's his character," Ann Romney said. "In every instance of my life that I have seen Mitt, I have seen an outstanding character, lots of integrity, and a steadfast, solid, just reliable person."

Her message had already won over Dorothy Sarnevitz, 80, of Sunapee, who greeted the Romneys at a noontime event at the Village Pizza restaurant in Newport. Sarnevitz told Romney her family strongly supports him, she said later. To her, Romney's religion attests to his character.

"He's a family man, which I like," she said. "He's a Mormon. He doesn't gallivant."

Not every attending voter was won over. As Romney passed out slices of cheese pizza in Newport, a man on the periphery shouted out a question. Bernard Folta, a 69-year-old Republican from Claremont, asked Romney how his business experience would make him effective in government. Romney responded that the principles of leadership and balancing budgets work in government like in business. When Romney said there were differences, Folta asked him to name them.

"Well, the private sector, for instance, if you keep spending more money than you take in, you go bankrupt," Romney said. "And so in the private sector you learn how to watch your budget and to balance your budget."

He said he balanced the budget all four years as governor of Massachusetts and pledged to set the nation on track to do so as president. Afterward, Folta said the answer was all right. But he said he prefers Newt Gingrich to Romney.

"A guy in his position has a repertoire of tapes in his head, so the tape he played was fine," he said. "He's heard my question before. He and his consultants have developed an answer. I understand the game."

Between stops, Romney and his advisers traveled on the campaign's new bus (the touring company's "Reagan" model) emblazoned with the words "conservative," "businessman" and "leader." Romney will return to Iowa for a tour ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Reporters and producers traveling with the campaign rode in a yellow bus along the same route. At lunchtime, Romney and Ayotte boarded the bus to distribute sandwiches to the press. When several reporters didn't leap at his offers of turkey and roast beef subs, Romney joked, "What do you guys want, filet mignon with some brie? . . . Arugula? That's the John Kerry bus back there."

The tour continues today with a morning coffee in Bethlehem, where state Sen. John Gallus of Berlin will introduce Romney and announce his support, according to the campaign. Gallus will be the tenth New Hampshire senator to endorse Romney. Romney also will meet voters at a clothing store in Lancaster, knock on doors in Berlin and hold a town hall meeting in North Conway.

(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or klangley@cmonitor.com.)

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