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In New Hampshire, Romney walks a tightrope

August 17, 2011|By Maeve Reston
(Jim Cole/AP )

Reporting from Bern, N.H. — As he campaigned in New Hampshire’s North Country on Tuesday – Mitt Romney got a taste of the difficult balancing act that he will face over the next six months in New Hampshire. Within the same hour, he found himself defending the ‘"tea party",’ which a voter had described as the “right wing fringe,” just moments after promising that if elected he would work “with good Democrats and good Republicans to get America on track.”

While Romney’s two chief rivals, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, have shown strong appeal to "tea party" groups over the past few years, many of the voters who flock to Romney’s events here in New Hampshire are of the more moderate sort. In a state where “undeclared” voters can play an outsized role by voting in the Republican primary, independent voters at Romney’s events often say they see the former Massachusetts governor as the most palatable of the Republican candidates.

One of them was Dona Larsen, a 65-year-old independent voter who works at a law office in Berlin and stopped by Romney’s event at a smoky VFW Bingo Hall on Tuesday night.

“I’d like to know how you are going to deal with the right wing fringe of the Republican Party,” Larsen asked Romney. “The tea-baggers—they’ve co-opted normal Republicans. How are you going to compromise with people who will not compromise?’

Romney said he took a “a bit of exception” with Larsen’s question.

“The great thing about the 'tea party' movement is that Republicans of all backgrounds and interests have all coalesced around a few common themes – which is that government is too big and spending is too much – I happen to agree with that,” he said. “You’re seeing the Republican Party united in a way that I haven’t seen before.”

Romney added that voters within the party have differences, but have come together “on the area of government being too big and too intrusive in our lives.”

“The best way I can get support from tea partiers, and mainstream Republicans and liberal Republicans is to talk about where we have common views, which is government is too big, it’s taking too much,” he said. “So you’re not going to see me distance myself from those who believe in small government.”

But Larsen persisted: “The ‘tea-baggers’ have a lot of us very concerned about them taking over the Republican Party. And I think you really need to be very careful… They’re like the John Birch Society,” she said. A man in the crowd let out a low whistle of disapproval as others murmured in disagreement.

“I think it’s a broader movement than some give it credit for,” Romney responded and soon moved on to another question.

After Romney’s town-hall style meeting, Larsen said she was deciding between Romney and President Obama. But on her way out the door she said Romney’s answer had made her concerned that he was “leaning toward the ‘tea-baggers.’

“That’s not going to help him at all with mainstream Republicans and mainstream independents,” Larsen said.

For the second day of his three-day tour of New Hampshire, Romney shrugged off reporters’ questions about Perry, his staunchly conservative rival who has shown broad appeal to the ‘tea party’ movement along with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. (Romney even rebuffed queries about policy areas where he and Perry might disagree).

Instead, he kept a disciplined focus on laying out his private sector experience and his seven core economic principles, which he first outlined in a debate last week.

But he continued to subtly draw a contrast between his experience in the business world and Perry’s two-decade career in government.

“I don’t have a political career,” he said in Berlin, where his advance staff had illuminated the bingo board with an “M” and the numbers: “20” “12.” “I spent 25 years in business. I only served four years in government.”

“This for me is not about the next step in my political career. This for me is about getting our country right and I don’t care whether I’m popular. I don’t care whether I’m re-elected. I care about getting America right for my grandchildren,” he said. 

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