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New Hampshire Dispatch: Romney Gets on the Bus

Mitt Romney officially declared his candidacy last June on a farm in Stratham, New Hampshire. One year later he returned, triumphant and ready to kick off his cross-country bus tour, eat ice cream with potential voters, and bash Obama’s record on the economy. 

Romney’s speech in Stratham this morning was the first event of his “Every Town Counts” bus tour, an attempt to spread his campaign’s message to small town voters in swing states. And if today was any indication, that message consists mostly of criticisms of Obama’s management of the economy.  “If there has ever been a president who has failed to give the middle class of America a fair shot, it is Barack Obama,” said Romney. (This was a play on the Obama’s frequent rhetoric of giving everyone a fair shot.)

“Over the past year, it’s become clear that good things begin here, so today we’re back, with a few more friends and closer to the goal,” said Romney. “Every day our campaign grows as more and more Americans realize that we don’t have to settle for these years of disappointment and decline.”

The message of economic struggle resonated with some of the listeners. One, a local business owner named Jack Gilchrist, had a story straight out of a RNC ad: During the recession, Gilchrist has seen his sales and workforce decrease significantly at his metal fabrication facility. When Romney visited his shop the day before the New Hampshire primary, he decided that the candidate’s business experience and leadership would help the economy, and he became a Romney supporter. “We need somebody taking responsibility,” Gilchrist told me. “I’m a business leader. I’ve got 38 employees and I don’t blame anybody else for my friggin’ problems.”

After shaking hands and posing for pictures, Romney left Stratham and just a few hours later arrived at Stop #2 of the bus tour: Milford, a small New Hampshire town of under 9,000 people. The candidate’s speech was, of course, quite similar to the one he gave that morning, but attendees at the day’s second event had something much more exciting to look forward to—what the campaign dubbed “An Ice Cream Social with Mitt and Ann Romney.” Locals gathered in the center of town, children in tow, to hear Romney speak; afterwards, Mitt, Ann, and Tim Pawlenty served ice cream to the crowd.

The term ice cream social evokes wholesome, small-town, 1950’s American life, and for some Romney fans the gimmick worked.  “You can see Romney for free. You just sign up for an ice cream social,” Vicki Schwaegler told me. Schwaegler, who works for the Republican state committee, drove two hours with her family to attend the event, which she contrasted with the expensive fundraising dinners other politicians hold. (See: Obama’s dinner with Sarah Jessica Parker)

Not everyone was such a fan. Both events, in fact, were protested by Obama supporters, as part of the Democratic National Committee’s “Romney Economics: Middle Class Under the Bus Tour,” which plans to follow the Romney campaign to each of its events, “delivering the truth about Romney’s record that you won’t hear from the candidate,” according to the DNC’s website. And just as Romney was sure to keep the focus on the struggling economy in his speeches, the Democratic protesters were determined to emphasize Romney’s economic policies. “If [Romney] becomes President, he’s not going to regulate Wall Street, which has become a gigantic rigged casino,” one protestor—a seventy-something Obama supporter named Jack Conaway—told me.  In Milford, a large crowd greeted Romney’s campaign bus as it arrived, brandishing Obama 2012 signs and chanting throughout Romney’s speech. And at both events, a plane flew overhead, carrying a banner that read “Romney’s Every Millionaire Counts Tour.”

Eric Wen is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a former New Republic intern.