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Romney on message at tea party rally

By Rachel Streitfeld, CNN Political Producer
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Romney plays up his private-sector experience
  • Ex-governor says he would do away with "Obamacare"
  • Small group of protesters calls speech a "photo-op"

Programming note: Watch Sen. Jim DeMint's Palmetto Freedom Forum on Labor Day from 3 to 5 p.m. ET on CNN or CNN.com, then watch John King's interview with DeMint on "John King, USA" at 7 p.m. ET.

Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN) -- For all that was new about Mitt Romney speaking before a tea party crowd, the most striking fact was how little was different.

Aside from a new line about his short time spent in public office, when Romney spoke to a tea party rally in Concord, New Hampshire, he stuck with the same pro-business message he's used at campaign events across the country.

Last week the former Massachusetts governor changed his schedule twice in one day to accommodate tea party events, but he signaled Sunday he would not change his message to appeal more directly to the group's base.

He repeated a line aimed at three-term Texas Gov. Rick Perry, telling the audience of about 200 that "career politicians got us into this mess" and only a candidate with business experience like his could turn the economy around.

"Of the people running I don't know that there are many that have spent less years in politics than me," he added, in a nod to the tea party tenet that businesspeople can often make more changes in government than long-time politicians.

He continued to play up his record as a private businessman, making one of his favorite jokes that in his four years as Massachusetts governor he "didn't inhale."

Romney is widely viewed as the party's "establishment" candidate and has not focused on speaking to tea party groups before this weekend.

Activists are more likely to support fiery social conservatives like Perry or Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who had concentrated on wooing the group long before officially declaring their candidacies.

The Tea Party Express audience listened closely to Romney's remarks, with a majority of the applause coming from about 50 campaign supporters.

Dave Kenyon, of Keene, said he was undecided on whom to support but liked Romney's message on creating jobs and reducing government.

"It was the first time I heard him speak and I'm reasonably impressed," he said. "He's saying the right things."

About 30 yards away from the Tea Party Express rally, a group of about 25 activists from the national tea party group FreedomWorks joined local groups to protest Romney's appearance.

Jerry DeLemus, vocal state activist and chairman of the Granite State Liberty PAC, said he has waited months for Romney to respond to an invitation to meet with New Hampshire tea party groups.

"He has ignored the tea party up until today. His record certainly isn't a tea party record," DeLemus said, calling the rally a "photo-op."

"Those pictures can be spread around the country like he's meeting with tea party groups," he said. "He's not."

Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party sees a path to success in painting Romney as an extreme conservative out-of-step with mainstream New Hampshire voters.

"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 New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley.

Romney has made recent overtures to the tea party, telling reporters in Merrimack, New Hampshire, last month the movement was good for Washington and had helped change the fiscal priorities and dialogue there.

One of the group's key rallying cries -- repealing President Barack Obama's health care plan -- remains an Achilles heel for the former Massachusetts governor, who passed a similar health plan when he led that state. At a recent town hall in Keene, New Hampshire, Romney was asked if considering passing the bill a mistake.

"What we did in Massachusetts I'm not going to apologize for because it was right for Massachusetts. And I know other people have alternative views," he said, adding the plan was not a one-size-fits-all solution and was never meant to be implemented on a federal level. "I like what we did for our state ... I can tell you this -- what we did in Massachusetts will not work in Mississippi."

Romney told the audience in Keene he strongly believes in the 10th amendment, which reserves many powers to the states.

"If I'm president, I'm the guy who understands health care," he said.

"And I understand what happens when the federal government lays its heavy hand on the health care system, and I'll reverse that and turn power back to the states where it belongs."

At the tea party event in Concord Sunday, the audience cheered when Romney said as president he would do away with "Obamacare."

The candidate now heads to South Carolina, where tea party kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint is hosting a forum for presidential hopefuls.

Romney had originally declined the invitation to speak, but reshuffled his Labor Day campaign plans to accept last week. The campaign denied the change of plans was in response to polls showing Perry had surpassed Romney in Republican support.

DeMint told CNN host Candy Crowley Sunday the tea party was a loose grouping of individuals nationwide concerned about the country's finances, and included supporters of many political persuasions.

"It's thousands of small groups around the country who are concerned about the spending, the borrowing and the debt, and for every person who goes to a tea party rally, there are hundreds of people who share those concerns," he said.

Eight Republican GOP hopefuls, including Romney, will come together at a CNN tea party debate on September 12.

 
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