Romney, Perry Turn Sights To Tea Party

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Recent polls show that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is more popular with the Tea Party rank and file. On the stump in New Hampshire over the weekend, the two leading candidates campaigned hard, and somewhat against type.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Labor Day is the traditional start of the fall campaign season. And even though the presidential election doesn't come until next year, the leading Republican contenders have had a busy holiday weekend. Josh Rogers of New Hampshire Public Radio reports on Mitt Romney and Rick Perry positioning themselves for the traditional first primary.

JOSH ROGERS: Mitt Romney will never be called a natural Tea Partier, and it showed last night in Concord when he spoke to a rally hosted by the Tea Party Express. Romney didn't even utter the words Tea Party.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor, Massachusetts): Of the people running for office, you know, I don't know that many have less years in politics than me. I spent four years as a governor. I joke that I didn't inhale. I still a citizen, I'm still a businessperson.

ROGERS: Yet Romney's decision to take the stage at a Tea Party, however gingerly, is telling. It comes as Rick Perry is topping him in national polls, and as Romney's own campaign continues to encounter controversy. When Romney's speech was announced, Freedomworks, a conservative group that had been part of the Tea Party Express tour, withdrew in protest. New Hampshire Tea Party groups also took exception. And when Romney made his way to the stage last night, he didn't go alone. A crowd of supporters in blue T-shirts went with him, encircled him and his wife Ann and yelled to drown out potential hecklers.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ROGERS: But the only hecklers were about ten demonstrators who had left an hour earlier. Their main criticism was of the mandatory insurance law Romney backed in Massachusetts. Tim Carter is with the Lakes Region Tea Party, which meets within miles of Romney's Wolfeboro vacation home.

Mr. TIM CARTER (Lake Region Tea Party): I don't know that there's anything that Mitt Romney could say that would make me feel like he's a Tea Party candidate. He just flies in the face of everything the Tea Party stands for.

ROGERS: If that message made it to Romney, it didn't show. After 13 minutes on stage, he left without taking questions, buffered all the way to a waiting SUV by scrum of supporters.

Mr. ROMNEY: Hey guys.

Unidentified Man: Hey, Mitt. Nice seeing you.

Mr. ROMNEY: Thanks so much for being here.

Unidentified Man #2: See you tomorrow, Mitt.

ROGERS: The atmosphere at Tea Party favorite Rick Perry's weekend events was stately by comparison. Golf carts were on hand to shuttle guests up a long side street to a Manchester house party. His next stop was the hilltop home of former U.S. Senator Gordon Humphrey. There, attendees were greeted by a brass band.

(Soundbite of song, "America The Beautiful")

ROGERS: Throughout, the press was held behind ropes, out of ear shot, as Perry mingled with crowds that topped 350 at each event. Off the cuff asides were kept to a minimum, and as Perry read from notes behind a podium.

Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): We're taking our future back from the grips of the central planners who want to control our health care, and spend our treasure, and downgrade our future and micromanage our lives.

ROGERS: Perry criticized the White House, but he also made clear he's got his eyes on Mitt Romney and the similarities between his health care law and the president's.

Mr. PERRY: We don't need a nominee that blurs the line between President Obama. We need someone who will draw a distinct difference and a distinct line, and I am that candidate.

ROGERS: Fred Rice, a conservative state rep from Hampton, says he'd gladly take either Perry or Romney as president, but after seeing both in action, his conclusion can't be what Mitt Romney wants to hear.

State Representative FRED RICE (Republican, New Hampshire): If you take what Romney said in 20 words, Perry, he did it in 10 words - much more Reaganesque than anybody we've had in years.

ROGERS: Rice says he'll be watching Wednesday's debate at the Reagan Library to see how Perry and Romney fare when they share a stage for the first time. He won't be alone.

For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord, New Hampshire.

(Soundbite of music)

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