Perry's Presence Felt At Romney's N.H. Appearances

Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney has been meeting with voters in New Hampshire. At this week's town hall sessions, he's faced tough questions about climate change and the future of Medicare and Social Security. Romney downplayed new polls showing he is no longer the GOP presidential frontrunner, thanks to a surge by new candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, this was a week that brought a change atop the leader board. Mitt Romney has gone by the unofficial title frontrunner since the campaign began. Now a new Gallup poll puts Romney is second place - 12 points behind Texas Governor Rick Perry, the latest candidate in the field.

Romney has been campaigning hard in New Hampshire this week, and NPR's Don Gonyea has been following him from town to town.

DON GONYEA: If you're going to get bad news in the form of a sudden change in the polls, then it's best to get it on friendly turf, and that's what New Hampshire is for Mitt Romney. At a town hall in the city of Keene, 83-year-old Lucy Opal gushed as she handed him her autograph book.

Ms. LUCY OPAL: And I've got lots of presidents in this book here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican Presidential Candidate): I hope you're getting one more. But time will tell.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. OPAL: You know how I call you? Mitty.

GONYEA: This was the first of two full days of town halls and other events for Romney in the state. A persistent obstacle for him in this race is a healthcare law he championed while governor of Massachusetts. The law was a model for what Republicans call Obamacare. Rick Perry has used it to attack Romney. Many Republican voters want Romney to apologize for the Massachusetts law.

In Keene, the question was put to him politely. Fifty-year-old insurance broker Mike Kapiloff wondered why Romney won't call it a mistake.

Mr. MIKE KAPILOFF (Insurance Broker): If you do mass health care, what's to stop you from doing that when you're the president?

Mr. ROMNEY: Well, number one, as you know, I will oppose Obamacare. That's number one. And on day one I'll direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to grant a waiver to all 50 states of Obamacare. Number two, what we did in Massachusetts, I'm not going to apologize for it because it was right for Massachusetts.

GONYEA: That answer satisfied Kapiloff, even as other GOP primary voters, especially those in the Tea Party movement, are still demanding an apology on the issue. Such questions about Romney are part of what has fueled the sudden rise of Rick Perry. But Perry has been a candidate less than two weeks and remains untested on the trail. So Romney's reaction is essentially not to react to him at all. When asked about the new Gallup poll by reporters in New Hampshire, he called Perry an effective candidate but said his strategy is unchanged.

Mr. ROMNEY: If you're running for president, your focus should be on the person who is president and his failures and how you're going to make America better.

GONYEA: Wednesday night it was another town Hall - this one in Lebanon.

Unidentified Man: To the next president of the United States of America...

GONYEA: But this one was different from the friendly vibe of the event earlier in Keene. In Lebanon, members of a group made up of retirees, many former union members, came with pointed questions about the impact of the cuts to government Romney wants.

Unidentified Woman: What do you plan to do about Social Security benefits? Do you plan to cut them?

Mr. ROMNEY: Who told you that? That I or any other Republican plans on cutting Social Security benefits? Where'd you hear that?

GONYEA: Romney then accused Democrats of demagoguing the issue. Another person in the audience, who described himself as an independent voter, pressed Romney on climate change. Romney has said in the past he believes the Earth is warming and he believes that man is a cause. That puts him at odds with Rick Perry. But in Lebanon, his emphasis seemed more on what he doesn't know.

Mr. ROMNEY: Do I think the world's getting hotter? Yeah. I don't know that, but I think it is. I'm not a scientist. Do I think we contribute to it? I don't know by how much.

GONYEA: Over both days in New Hampshire, Romney kept up the attacks on President Obama, and last night in Dover he unveiled a new prop: a giant green digital clock constantly displaying the current national debt. He stood in front of it as he spoke to reporters.

Mr. ROMNEY: Appreciate your being here this evening. It's a little warm. What's particularly warm is the speed with which that clock is having to move. We're going to be going across the country talking about the excessive borrowing and spending of this administration.

GONYEA: It's Romney talking about a favorite subject, but with Rick Perry now surging, Romney's focus may have to shift from the man in the White House to the man from Texas. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Dover, New Hampshire.

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