POLITICS
10/29/2011 09:52 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2011

Mitt Romney's Rough Week Doesn't Change Much In 2012 GOP Primary

MANCHESTER, N.H. – It was Mitt Romney's turn to feel like a piñata this week.

The former Massachusetts governor took fire from all directions on Friday as Republican presidential primary rivals and Democrats hit him repeatedly for -- what else -- flip-flopping.

"Like it or not, the governor has been on opposite sides of a lot of issues," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, during a midday event in Concord, the state capital, where he presented himself as a "consistent" candidate.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman called Romney a "perfectly lubricated weather vane," and Huntsman's presidential campaign sent around a video montage of Romney taking different positions in the past on issues such as abortion and gun rights.

Conservative columnist George Will dubbed Romney "the pretzel candidate," slapped him around for shifting stances on ethanol subsidies and Ohio's collective bargaining law, and said that Romney is "a recidivist reviser of his principles who is ... becoming less electable."

New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O'Brien, a Republican, told The Huffington Post that Romney's sizable lead in the polls here is "name recognition more than anything else." O'Brien knocked Romney for his waffling on the Ohio collective bargaining question on Monday, which Romney then apologized for on Tuesday.

"He doesn't do himself any favors when he goes to one state like Ohio and seems to become a little bit less definitive in right-to-work, for example, than he is when he comes to New Hampshire, where for Republicans this is a premiere issue," O'Brien said. "So we want to make sure there's a philosophical core there that we can evaluate, rather than just a candidate that wants higher public office."

And Democrats, along with Perry, pounced on a comment by Romney from a day earlier that they claimed was a reversal of his position on global warming.

"My view is that we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet," Romney said in Pittsburgh Thursday.

In June Romney said, "I believe the world's getting warmer. I can't prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And ... I believe that humans contribute to that. I don't know how much our contribution is to that."

The Romney campaign protested that their candidate had not contradicted himself on Thursday. And in fact, Romney's past comments in June, and again in August, have included a lot of equivocations over the causes of global warming. In August, Romney used the phrase "I don't know" five times when explaining his view of the issue, which was seen by some at the time as a shift from his June comments.

The Perry campaign said Romney had "changed positions" and the Democratic National Committee quickly created a 30-second video that they posted to their website devoted to driving the message that Romney is a shape-shifter: WhichMitt.com.

Romney aides were exasperated.

"This is ridiculous," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an e-mailed statement. "Governor Romney's view on climate change has not changed. He believes it's occurring, and that human activity contributes to it, but he doesn't know to what extent."

Romney himself betrayed no signs of worry during a Friday evening town hall meeting in Manchester with 200 to 300 New Hampshire residents. He was upbeat and projected confidence. Yet there was still something of a disconnect at times between him and those in the room. Voters expressed anxiety about the future of the country in their questions to Romney. The mood was heavy. But the candidate never came to their level emotionally.

The voters seemed to want to hear Romney speak from his heart, and his gut. But everything came from his head.

One voter, Rick DeBlois of Manchester, 52, told HuffPost afterward that Romney's response to his question about cutting the federal budget deficit was a "non-answer." Nonetheless, he said that he was still likely leaning toward supporting him, or maybe Huntsman.

"Like a lot of people I'm not 100 percent happy with my choices," DeBlois said, adding he did not see how the deficit will be reduced without tax increases as part of the solution.

Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, who endorsed Romney last week, downplayed any need for Romney to forge a more personal connection with voters. He just needs to "keep on plugging," Sununu said.

"This country has been screwed by a president that got his votes emotionally. This country needs a president that's smart enough to do the right thing. That's why I endorsed Romney," Sununu told HuffPost.

If Romney was loose during his town hall meeting, Perry -- later in the night at an event across town -- was so jocular that he drew attention to himself. Speaking at a dinner for a few hundred Republican officials and conservative activists, Perry was more expressive than at any other time on the campaign trail, punctuating his remarks with a series of goofy grins, jokes and outsized physical expressions.

"We spend a half a trillion dollars a year in tax preparation. I mean, any accountant or tax lawyer out there, I'm sorry dude, but that's too much money," Perry said.

Perry sought to hail his tax reform plan but had trouble fishing a postcard out of his pocket that he says represents the totality of a tax return under his plan. He tried once to take it out and couldn't, changing direction midstream in his comments. Then he tried a second time.

"The ones that want to stay in the old system, pay lawyers, pay the accountants, all that moneys' gone, or," he said with a long pause as he struggled to retrieve the postcard before holding it up and shouting, "That!"

"It's pretty easy math. Subtract it and send it in. It's awesome," Perry said, lowering his voice and grinning. The crowd reacted with a mixture of enthusiasm and bemusement.

"It was different," Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas said of Perry's delivery.

Much of the 2012 conversation about Romney is of how vulnerable he is, how far he has to go to close the deal with voters, and who might emerge (or reemerge) to become a viable alternative to him.

But while he suffered a rough week, no one else really came any closer to replacing him. Cain, the former Godfathers Pizza CEO, remains high in the polls, but is not seen as presidential. And at least here in New Hampshire -- where state polls show Perry in sixth place at 3.3 percent -- there were not a lot of signs Friday that he is gaining any ground.

Perry's campaign is expected at some point soon to unleash a barrage of attack ads against Romney, and they have the money to do it. An air war between the super PACs supporting Perry and Romney is also anticipated. But Perry still has to make up a lot of lost ground with Republican primary voters in convincing them that he is someone they should support.

"He's a folksy guy," said Jerry DeLemus, a Tea Party leader from Rochester, after watching Perry speak on Friday night. He then added: "I think Obama would chew him up."

Perry sat down in the Barley House, a restaurant across the street from the state house, for a lunch time radio interview with WXKL's Chris Ryan. Ryan, conducting the interview live to tape, ended a segment by cutting to a commercial and then a split second later came back from the break.

"You need to sell more advertising," Perry joked.

Ryan shot back good-naturedly: "I know, advertising is way down, particularly for this event."