By Ashley Parker
Though Republican Party leaders have spent the last week casting about for an alternative to the current crop of 2012 presidential hopefuls -- Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey comes to mind -- Mitt Romney used a town-hall-style at Saint Anselm College on Wednesday to attack President Obama, mentioning his Republican rivals only when asked.
"I guess you had David Axelrod here yesterday at St. Anselm's, is that right?" Mr. Romney said, after he had quieted the crowd, which gave him two standing ovations -- one when he entered, and again when he started speaking. "He said that the Obama campaign was going to be a titanic struggle. I'm not sure he knows what that word means, I'm not sure if he saw the movie -- a titanic struggle, how appropriate."
Mr. Romney added: "The captain of the ship has been inattentive, otherwise occupied or asleep for most of the voyage. And, finally and most importantly, it's going to sink."
Until what many Republicans viewed as a poor debate performance last week, as well as a second-place finish in the Florida straw poll, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was considered to be Mr. Romney's chief rival for the nomination. But on Wednesday, the closest Mr. Romney came to taking on Mr. Perry was an allusion to Mr. Perry's decision as governor to sign the Texas Dream Act, which gives the children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities. (When Mr. Perry defended his position last week in the debate in Orlando, Fla., he was met with boos.)
When he was governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney said, he vetoed a bill offering similar in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. "I'd rather give it to you," he said. "I'd rather forgive your loans than give it to people who are here illegally. "
In a three-and-a-half minute news conference afterward, Mr. Romney appeared to welcome Mr. Christie's entrance into the race.
"Chris is a great friend, great guy, colorful character," he said. "He's a governor I'd love to see in more political settings, and who knows, maybe he'll get in. It'd be fun if he got in."
Mr. Romney's brief, amiable remarks about Mr. Christie mirrored the way he chose to engage Mr. Perry early on -- not at all, if he could help it, and then only with the most generic of praise when pressed by reporters.
When asked if he was "insulted" that voters weren't thoroughly satisfied with him as a candidate and were searching for alternatives, Mr. Romney dismissed the question.
"I'm very pleased with the fact that I've got a lot of people in this country who are pleased with my candidacy, and my job is to make that even larger," he said. "And actually in the places where I spend a lot of my campaign time -- Michigan, New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina -- we're doing pretty darn well."
In his town-hall-style meeting, Mr. Romney blamed Mr. Obama for blaming others, saying that because the president was unable to talk about his record or his vision, "he is beginning to turn to blame."
"It began with George W. Bush, then the Republicans, then Congress, then Fox TV and Fox radio, then talk radio, talk TV generally, let's see, where else do we go?" Mr. Romney said. "The tsunami, A.T.M.'s -- I mean the list goes on and on and on."
Seeming to try to seize the positive mantle of Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign while simultaneously criticizing the president, Mr. Romney said his concern for the coming political season is that "what we're going to see is a campaign that is not in keeping with the greatness of America."
"It will be a titanic campaign, and we deserve something better than that," he said.
"My campaign will be a campaign of American greatness," Mr. Romney said. "I believe instead we need to draw together, that we need campaigns and leaders who will draw on the greatness of the American spirit, as opposed to people who will divide us, and look for scapegoats, and demonize fellow Americans, or find a street that's responsible for our problems."
During his 50-minute town-hall-meeting, Mr. Romney seemed relaxed and comfortable.
"Let me just say before I ask my question, you're a better candidate now than you were four years ago," said one man in the audience.
Still, Mr. Romney briefly forgot how many grandchildren he has when talking about his family and the country.
"I care very deeply about the country's future," he said. "I've got 16 grandkids, 17, something like that. Sixteen -- I'm counting ones that aren't hatched yet."