DERRY, N.H. –- Mitt Romney has done this before.
The once-and-again GOP presidential hopeful made sure to arrive at his first diner stop in Manchester on foot, avoiding the elitist image of him climbing out of a black SUV. He hit the same three spots in the southern town, just 20 minutes north of the Massachusetts border, as he did in the 2008 campaign: Mary Ann's diner, Benson's Hardware and Derry Feed.
Romney continued, as he did in his first debate Monday night, to rip into President Barack Obama with a simple line of attack. The economy has gotten worse, and it's Obama's fault, he said.
Romney even coined a phrase. "There's a big difference between what's actually happened and what he said would happen. It's the agonizing reappraisal," he told Bud Evans, the co-owner of Derry Feed.
The soft-spoken Bud agreed: "Buyer's remorse," the 46-year-old said.
Outside the store, a man delivering hay to the feed store indicated he was putting an extraordinary amount of faith in the office of the president –- whether held by Republican or Democrat –- to influence the economy. "As soon as you're in, the gas prices will be down," said Tony Marcelonis, a 55-year-old from Newton.
In the bustling Mary Ann's, Warren Martinez, 87, put it just as simply: "I want him to change the economy," he said after Romney came to his booth to chat for a few minutes. Obama's economic policies have been comprised mainly of "political reactions," Martinez said. "He's muted the economy."
As Romney walked outside, Mary Ellen Zarba pleaded with him to create jobs so that her husband could return from his job as a civil engineer contractor in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "What can you do to bring him home?" the a 51-year-old mother of three asked. "We need something that works, because I want my husband home and so do my children."
Romney and his campaign know the calculus is as simple for most Americans as it is for these voters: They want someone -- anyone -- who can heal the economy.
That idea is driving his run. And at this early point in the GOP presidential primary, it's allowing the former Massachusetts governor to fly unmolested above the complaints from the conservative wing of the Republican party that he is a big government technocrat who championed a state health care program that is a violation of free market capitalism.
Asked at the end of his New Hampshire jaunt about Tea Party groups, who have said they will work to stop him from becoming the Republican nominee, Romney had another short, crisp, obviously rehearsed answer: "I think I line up pretty well with the Tea Party. They want to see smaller government, and so do I."
In a brief press conference after his three-store morning tour, Romney continued to stay on message.
"Things aren't better now," he told reporters. "You can't blame George Bush anymore. President Obama is going to have to take responsibility for the fact that we have a very troubled economy."
Romney looked buoyant after the previous evening's debate, during which none of his Republican rivals laid a glove on him over his health care program. He simply called it "a good night."
"We kept ourselves targeted on the president, which I think is the right thing to do," he said in a brief interview with HuffPost.
While Romney obviously knew the drill, it was also clear that it was a drill. He didn't linger. He hurried through the meet and greets.
When he stopped at McDonalds to eat an Egg McMuffin and kill time, a reporter from HuffPost and one photographer were the only journalists present. With fewer press around and no TV cameras, Romney showed little interest in extended conversations with voters. Instead, he went to the parking lot and sat in his SUV with aides for about 15 minutes.
There were awkward moments as well. He walked up to two women in their early 40s sitting at a booth together in Mary Ann's and asked, "Do you guys know each other?"
A few minutes later, posing with a few waitresses, Romney nearly jumped away from them with a howl, pretending as if one of them had grabbed his backside. He laughed -- there is supposedly a backstory about someone actually pinching him a few years ago -- but it was nonetheless a jarring sight.
Afterward the waitresses said they had not grabbed him.
Romney said the same. "No, no, no. That was just teasing them," adding that he was grabbed for real "during my campaign four years ago -- four or five years ago."
Romney told another group of diners, "As we say in Massachusetts vote early and often."
Then he realized it sounded like he was advocating for voting more than once, which is against the law. "That's just a joke for us, but there are a few people who take that to, uh, the serious part," he said, laughing.
He had a few moments where he appeared to connect with a voter or two. At Blake's Restaurant, his first stop in Manchester, Romney talked about the sorry condition of Michigan, where his father served as governor in the 1960s.
"It just breaks your heart to be in a state, which was at the top of the world," he said, speaking to 74-year-old Loretta Bolger, who lived in the Great Lakes State. "You remember, in the 1960s, 1950, my dad presided over something called the Golden Jubilee. I think it was 1946 -- 50 years of automotive history and the parade down Woodward Avenue. I think they painted the street silver, or gold or whatever."
"And then, to see it now?" he continued. "I was just in Detroit a couple weeks ago. It's just tragic."
Romney quickly blamed "a lot of federal programs that did not work" for what happened to the city and state. "I think the government just got too heavy handed."
He then quoted C.E. Wilson, the General Motors CEO who went on to become Secretary of Defense under President Dwight Eisenhower. "As General Motors goes, so goes the nation," he said. "I hope that's not the case, but if he's right, we got some challenges ahead of us. We better get General Motors, and a lot of businesses … back on track."
Romney posed for a picture with Bolger and her son, Benjamin.
"If I win, you can save it," he said. "If I lose, press delete."
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