MANCHESTER, N.H. — Campaigning just five miles and a few minutes apart, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Perry showed first-in-the-nation primary state voters just how starkly different they are.
Romney, who leads the state's polls, has spent years campaigning here and has a home on a nearby lake, held an hour-long town hall meeting Friday outside of Manchester. Perry, a much newer presidential candidate on his sixth visit to the state, filed his official paperwork to appear on the state's presidential primary ballot, met briefly with voters at a local restaurant and gave a boisterous speech to social conservatives.
Romney held private meetings in Manchester Friday morning and spent the evening taking questions from voters, covering fiscal policy, the environment, defense, even NASA funding. He largely ignored his Republican rivals and went after President Barack Obama instead.
"The president's philosophy," Romney said, "is extraordinarily misguided. What they have done over the last three years is every time they've seen an area they thought needed addressing, they put more government in, and what it did was it caused the private sector to retreat."
Romney is far ahead in the polls here. His organization is long-running and stable. And he faces challenges from a multitude of rivals who are competing for the same group of conservative voters.
Perry — his chief rival in money, staff and organization elsewhere in the country — spent his New Hampshire morning defending his debate performances and campaign trail mistakes — and attacking rivals Romney and Herman Cain.
"The governor (Romney) has been on opposite sides of a lot of issues. He was for banning handguns; now he's Mister Second Amendment," Perry said during a radio interview at the Barley House restaurant across from the New Hampshire Statehouse. "Governor Romney in his book initially said his health care plan would be good for America. And then he took that sentence out when the book came out in paperback. So the issue is, Who are we really going to trust to stand up every day and be consistent? I have been consistent."
And in a spirited 20-minute speech at the socially conservative Cornerstone Action's banquet here, Perry cracked jokes, talked baseball, quoted from Proverbs and waved his one-page flat tax filing form in the air.
The two men — one businesslike, calm, usually careful; the other aggressive, spirited and pointed in conviction — could hardly provide New Hampshire voters with two more different candidates to choose from, in style, focus or substance.
Romney came to his town hall surrounded by a handful of his longest-serving and most influential advisers, business leaders and political operatives. He opened his remarks with an anecdote about his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, to describe why America's economy is in trouble.
"He said there's nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success," Romney told the crowd of about 100, seated in chairs surrounding him. "His idea was that some groups of people or companies or nations become so used to their success that they become complacent, they become fat, lazy, and other upstarts are able to rush past them."
Romney has been working hard here for months, almost since he lost his last campaign in 2008. He's focused relentlessly on his economic message, a pitch that plays well with independent-minded voters in the state. He avoids the social issues that tripped him up last time, including abortion and gay marriage.
And while he was on message during his appearance on the trail, his campaign was left to deal with yet more accusations that he had flip-flopped on a major issue important to conservatives. It's a reputation left over from the last campaign, and one he's been unable to shake. On Friday, Democrats seized on comments he made in Pittsburgh, where he said he wasn't sure what was causing global warming — remarks they portrayed as a shift from a previous position, though Romney had said as much before.
Perry, by contrast, is on his sixth visit to the state since he announced his presidential run in mid-August. He's far behind in the polls here, and is instead likely to focus on the caucuses in Iowa and the primaries in South Carolina and Florida. He arrived, as always, accompanied by a few of personal aides and a sizable security contingent.
His central message is his job creation record in Texas.
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