Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters in Charleston,… (Richard Ellis, Getty Images )
Reporting from Salem, N.H. — When his opponents were pinned down in Iowa in a mad scramble for survival, Mitt Romney hopscotched to New Hampshire. Now that the presidential contest has moved to New Hampshire, Romney has leaped ahead to South Carolina.
His moves are a daily demonstration of the advantages that money and organization have given the Republican front-runner, as his champagne-and-caviar operation takes on his caffeine-and-chips challengers.
On Thursday, five days before the New Hampshire primary, Romney campaigned for votes both from the frigid north and, late in the day, South Carolina. His message was an artful two-for-one, a general-election assault against President Obama that echoed criticisms leveled against his Republican primary challengers.
In Salem, N.H., Romney called Obama a "crony capitalist" who had turned over the federal Treasury to his political benefactors, in the form of loan guarantees to the now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra and others. The term was most recently popularized by Sarah Palin, who used it against, among others, Romney challenger Rick Perry, the governor of Texas.
"Capitalism, free enterprise, works. Crony capitalism does not," Romney said, raising the subject repeatedly during a one-hour gathering of supporters at a local boys and girls club.
"This president has engaged and is engaging in crony capitalism," Romney said, adding that Obama had directed government resources to benefit "the big unions that helped out his campaign."
Romney specifically scored Obama's appointment Wednesday of three members to the National Labor Relations Board. The appointments had been stalled by Senate Republicans who said the appointees were too sympathetic to organized labor. Obama made the appointments unilaterally using his power to fill vacancies during congressional recesses. (Republicans countered that they are not in recess; the dispute appears headed for the courts).
Though not necessarily at the forefront of voters' minds in New Hampshire, the NLRB has been at the center of a long confrontation in South Carolina, which holds its primary Jan. 21, and it was to the residents of that state that Romney's remarks appeared to be directed.
He called it "extraordinary" that Obama "said 'I'm going to put some more labor stooges on the National Labor Relations Board.' "
Romney began airing ads in South Carolina on Thursday blasting the NLRB for filing a complaint against Boeing that alleged the company had retaliated against union workers in Seattle by putting a nonunion production line in Charleston. The complaint was dropped after the union and Boeing worked out their differences.
In New Hampshire, Romney did not mention Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum or Jon Huntsman Jr., who were campaigning elsewhere in the state trying to cut into Romney's massive lead before Tuesday's primary. The disconnect between Romney and the others was evident in other ways as well.
The candidate appeared in Salem at a theater-in-the-round setting that was billed as a question-and-answer session with local residents. In the end, only five questions were asked over an hour's time as Romney and two endorsers — Arizona Sen. John McCain and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte — hit on the campaign's talking points.
A giant American flag decorated one side of the gymnasium in which the event was held; another bore Romney's "Believe in America" logo. A few hundred supporters were seated in neatly aligned folding chairs in a five-row-deep square around the candidate. The site was professionally lighted; the audio was crisp. Supporters left with handfuls of slickly printed Romney advertisements to hang on their doors.
At the same time, Gingrich opened an event in Lancaster by standing behind a lectern with a sign bearing his campaign logo, "Rebuilding the America We Love." His backdrop: informational panels about the nearby Connecticut River Byway.
Still, Romney was leaving nothing to chance. McCain, on his second straight day as Romney's wingman, issued a broadside against "pork barrel earmark projects" of the sort that Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who was a close second to Romney in Iowa's caucuses, has been criticized for supporting.
Romney himself ticked off accomplishments during his four years as governor of Massachusetts, right across the border, and added a prebuttal to any coming attacks.
"You live next door, so no one can pull the wool over your eyes about my record," he said.
And he closed his remarks with an overt appeal for votes Tuesday.
"I need your help," he said. "I want your help."