By Shira Schoenberg
In a much-anticipated address to nearly 200 Tea Party activists at a Rollins Park rally last night, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stressed the patriotism of the American people but made no mention of the Tea Party or the controversy surrounding his appearance.
Instead, Romney talked about his experience as a private businessman and offered the same critique of President Obama's economic policies that he has made for months.
"I don't know why the president is so misguided,'' Romney said. "He took a cue from social democrats from Europe. Europe isn't working there, it sure as heck isn't going to work here.''
The former Massachusetts governor spoke against the backdrop of buses from the Tea Party Express tour, which is crossing the country from California to Florida, where the group is cosponsoring a Sept. 12 presidential debate.
The Tea Party Express invited all Republican presidential candidates to speak. But a group of activists organized by FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group at the forefront of the Tea Party movement, protested Romney's appearance, saying his record contradicts Tea Party ideals.
Until now, Romney has mostly appealed to moderate Republicans, with the most conservative voters favoring Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who started a Tea Party caucus in Congress, and now Governor Rick Perry of Texas.
Although Romney's campaign says he has been reaching out to Tea Party leaders, none of his outreach has been as overt as efforts he has made since Perry entered the race - most notably, last night's rally, followed a planned appearance today at a forum in South Carolina with Republican Senator Jim DeMint, a Tea Party leader.
At a rally of about 25 people held before the Tea Party Express rally, FreedomWorks activists and others faulted Romney for his health care overhaul in Massachusetts that included an individual mandate, for raising fees in Massachusetts, and for other positions.
"We do not need leadership that puts their finger up, sees which way the wind's blowing, and then all of a sudden changes their mind and goes back in that direction,'' said Tim Carter, a leader of the Lakes Region Tea Party. "If you look at Mitt's past voting record, I think that's what you're going to see.''
Lisa Campbell, a Tea Party activist from Concord, said she will listen to Romney but will not be easily won over.
She does not believe Romney has paid enough attention to the Tea Party movement. "I feel like I'm being asked out on a date after my best friend turned him down,'' Campbell said. "Now that Perry is shooting up in the polls, it seems like now he has time for us.''
Yet Romney had supporters. About 40 volunteers wore blue Romney T-shirts and surrounded the candidate with cheers. Tricia Galloway, a retired financial planner and Tea Party activist from Trumbull, Conn., held a Romney campaign sign.
"He has the executive experience, the proven track record, to put us on the road to prosperity,'' Galloway said. "I'm not so concerned whether the president is a Tea Partier or not. I'm concerned whether he can do the job.''
Romney did not mention the Tea Party in his speech and did not take questions from the audience or reporters.
As in the past, Romney focused his criticism on Obama and made only veiled references to his opponents.
Romney was governor of Massachusetts for four years and is running for president for the second time. But he has spent less time in office than Perry, who first held elected office in 1984.
Romney also noted, "Career politicians got us into this mess; career politicians can't get us out of this mess.''
The only possible nod to the Tea Party, a group that proclaims its patriotism, was Romney's focus on patriotic values, liberty, and freedom. Romney talked about his experience as governor in meeting the casket of a soldier at Logan Airport and about family trips to national parks.
"This is the greatest nation in the history of the earth because of founding parents who understood the need for liberty and freedom, and we're going to make sure we keep it,'' Romney said.
The New Hampshire Democratic Party tried to portray Romney as a typical Tea Party candidate. "Romney for months has been courting Tea Partiers with his push for Right to Work for Less, his support for ending Medicare as we know it, and his pledge of allegiance to the Tea Party on spending cuts versus revenue increases in an Iowa debate,'' said Ray Buckley, the party chairman.
At the FreedomWorks rally yesterday, Tea Party activists criticized Romney's leadership of the health care overhaul in Massachusetts, his involvement in a regional climate-change pact, and his support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the so-called federal bank bailout.
Some held signs for Tea Party icon Sarah Palin, who has not said whether she is running for the presidential nomination, and for Representative Ron Paul of Texas, also a presidential candidate. Palin is scheduled to speak at a New Hampshire Tea Party Express rally today.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman arrived in New Hampshire on Thursday for a five-day trip. Yesterday he greeted voters at the Alton Fair and the Hopkinton State Fair.
Huntsman plans to attend a parade in Milford and a picnic in Salem today, while Romney plans to attend a Labor Day breakfast in Manchester.