Mitt Romney kicked off a tour of small towns in six swing states Friday in an effort to invigorate the conservative, rural electorate that he struggled to win over during his hotly contested fight for the Republican nomination.
The states on the five-day tour have special significance, as all were won by Barack Obama in 2008.
At the picturesque New Hampshire farm where Romney launched his second presidential run just over a year ago, a bluegrass band warmed up the crowd that had gathered on a glowing late-spring day before Romney’s campaign bus pulled up behind the stage to a dramatic musical score.
Flanked by his wife, Ann, and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the presumptive presidential nominee accused Obama of being “distant and detached” from the lives of everyday Americans and vowed to spend the next 4½ months campaigning “on the message that America’s greatest days are yet ahead.”
“Americans realize that we don’t have to settle for these years of disappointment and decline, and I think instead America knows that we can do better,” he said.
Dressed is a white button-down shirt and casual slacks, Romney said that he would revitalize the rural “backbone of America,” citing legendary literary, scientific, and political figures who grew up in small U.S. towns before achieving fame.
In his months-long fight to ward off his most persistent primary challenger, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Romney time and again struggled to win votes in rural areas that he will have to dominate in November in order to become president.
The launch of the bus tour is largely intended to generate enthusiasm among conservative voters who wouldn’t dream of backing Obama but might be lukewarm about the former Massachusetts governor.
Over the next five days, Romney will visit far-flung, bucolic spots in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan.
The trip is among the first major logistical tests for a Republican campaign operation that has expanded rapidly in recent weeks but lags behind the Obama ground organization in many areas.
Though he will arrive at each event on one of four buses that the campaign operates, Romney will fly on a chartered plane between states.
In a briefing with reporters at the campaign’s North End headquarters in Boston, Romney strategist Russ Schriefer said that the tour is an opportunity for the candidate to “campaign off the beaten path,” but he declined to comment overtly on political considerations.
“Unlike the Obama campaign, we’re not really big on outlining our strategy out loud, so I’ll kind of keep that to ourselves right now,” Schriefer said.
In his remarks at the farm in Stratham, Romney scoffed at the “very long speech” that Obama delivered in Ohio on Thursday and mocked the president’s recent characterization of the private sector as “doing fine.”
But Romney’s overall tone was measured and subdued as he spoke about the weak economic climate and touted his own qualifications for the nation’s highest office.
“If there’s ever been a president who’s failed to give the middle class of America a fair shot, it is Barack Obama,” he said. “I’m running for president because I have the vision and experience to get us out of this mess. I’m offering a real choice and a new beginning for the American people.”
Among the few hundred people who waved flags and cheered intermittently throughout Romney’s remarks were Karen and Dennis Acton of nearby Fremont, N.H.
Karen Acton, who owns a small business in the area, said that she worried about the effects of Obama’s national health care reform law.
“I thought it was inspiring,” she said of Romney’s economy-centric speech. “I’m getting overregulated, my costs are going through the roof, and it’s hard to keep people working.”
Dennis Acton voted for Ron Paul in January’s New Hampshire primary but on Friday was supporting the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee.
“I think things are looking really good for Romney,” he said. “His campaign seems to have gotten it together.”
Romney was scheduled to spend Friday afternoon at an ice cream social in the town of Milford before heading to Pennsylvania for the next leg of his trip.