Arriving in Stratham, N.H., Mitt Romney, left, and his wife, Ann, wave from… (Matthew Cavanaugh, MCT )
MILFORD, N.H. — Like buzzing flies, two small planes with trailing banners circled in the blue sky above Mitt Romney as he launched a five-day tour of small-town America at a New Hampshire farm.
The hostile plane — "Romney's Every Millionaire Counts Tour," its red banner screamed — seemed to be chasing the friendly one with a more mundane message: "Romney for President 2012." Round and round they went.
For a campaign that recoils from all things spontaneous, it was a rare distraction at the opening event of Romney's swing through some of the less populous (and more Republican) regions of the presidential battleground states.
It was also fitting on a day when President Obama overshadowed Romney's message with his announcement that the administration would stop deporting many illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children.
After weeks of gaining momentum amid a spate of bad economic news that has shaken Obama's reelection campaign, Romney was faced with a classic demonstration of how the White House can use its power to reset the agenda.
For hours, Romney tried to ignore the news. Finally, after a rally here with a ragtime band playing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in a town-square gazebo, Romney made a statement that struck a radically different tone from the hard-line approach he took on illegal immigration during the Republican primaries.
"I believe the status of young people who come here through no fault of their own is an important matter to be considered and should be solved on a long-term basis so they know what their future would be in this country," he told reporters outside of his campaign bus.
"I think the action that the president took today makes it more difficult to reach that long-term solution, because an executive order is of course just a short-term matter. It could be reversed by subsequent presidents. I'd like to see legislation that deals with this issue."
But he made no commitment to supporting any particular option.
The statement reflected the difficulty that Romney faces in making the traditional pivot of a Republican presidential nominee from the right to the center once the primaries are over. In Romney's case, any effort to step up appeals to moderate voters risks fueling accusations that his history of shifting positions shows a lack of core principles.
Immigration is especially dangerous turf for Romney. On the one hand, he has to keep in mind the growing influence of Latino voters in such swing states as Colorado and Nevada. On the other, he has to avoid depressing support among conservatives who shunned him during the primaries, but are now crucial to his hopes of unseating Obama.
After making his statement on immigration, Romney refused to take questions, in keeping with his campaign's meticulous staging of the events that opened his tour, which will also take him to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.
Romney's first stop, in Stratham, was at a picturesque farm in the green rolling hills of southern New Hampshire, with the dueling airplanes supplying background noise.
His ad team deployed six cameras to record the rally for TV commercials. One camera hovered at the end of a boom hanging over the crowd of several hundred. A giant arc light, hoisted on a scissor lift, enhanced the sunlight.
On the roof of a white barn behind the stage, a blue banner bore the Romney tour's slogan, "Every Town Counts." So did the Romney campaign bus that rolled into the picture.
Warming up the crowd next to piles of hay bales outside the barn was an unlikely, for New England, banjo-and-fiddle bluegrass band.
Leaving little to chance, Romney spoke with the aid of a teleprompter.
"For so many Americans," Romney said, "the distance between their
town and the city of Washington has never seemed so far.
"The federal establishment has never seemed so hostile and so remote, so disconnected from economic reality, and yet so willing to use restrictions and regulations, taxes and fines, commissions and czars to direct our daily lives."
Along with his boilerplate attacks on Obama's economic record, Romney paid tribute to America's farms and churches, its Little League coaches and PTA members, along with some presidents who grew up in small towns — Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
Borrowing a Reagan campaign staple, Romney also took aim at welfare.
"Poverty will be defeated not with a government check, but with respect and achievement that's taught by parents, learned in school and practiced in the workplace," he said.
Apart from Obama's capture of the news cycle — and the unfriendly airplane, sponsored by the liberal group MoveOn.org— the only other departure from the campaign's script was a flub by Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
In her introduction of Romney, Ayotte, one of his potential running mates, took a wrong turn, as it were, as she borrowed Obama's metaphor of a political party (Republicans in his telling) driving the country into a ditch.
"It's time to make sure we are on the wrong road," she told the crowd. "Let's not continue with the same driver. We need a new driver who is going to turn this country around."