As Democratic and Republican leaders in Washington struggled to find agreement on spending cuts and extending the debt limit, Mitt Romney struck a conciliatory note in New Hampshire on Monday by lamenting partisan feuding while touting his record of working with Democrats -- even the Senate’s onetime liberal lion Edward M. Kennedy.
Taking a pause from a fundraising tour for two campaign appearances, Romney faced questions from voters that reflected frustration with the gridlock in Washington.
During a business roundtable at a technology company in Salem, state Sen. Chuck Morse pressed Romney to explain how he would unite “a country that’s very divided.” Morse told the Republican front-runner: “Quite honestly, it’s not working and they’re not getting the message in Washington right now.”
A short while later, at Lincoln Financial Group in Concord, Romney’s first questioner told the former Massachusetts governor that he was troubled by how polarized the country had become.
“We’re either on the extreme left or the extreme right, but in the past America has become great by compromise and going down the middle of the road,” said independent voter Stephen Smith, 57. “What do you propose doing to bring America back together?”
The questions were a reminder of the competing imperatives that Republican candidates face in New Hampshire: They must win over the party’s most passionate conservatives while also appealing to independent voters who can cast ballots in the first-in-the nation primary next year.
Attempting to straddle that line, Romney said President Obama had failed to work in a spirit of bipartisanship and had used his first two years “to jam through” legislation that Romney described as “strictly partisan,” including the controversial healthcare overhaul and changes to the financial regulatory system.
By way of contrast, Romney said, during his early years as governor he held weekly meetings with Democratic legislators after realizing that to get something done he “had to be friendly.”
Collaboration in Massachusetts was possible, Romney told business leaders in Salem, because he didn’t attack lawmakers from the other party as “a bunch of Neanderthals.”
Romney threaded plenty of criticism of the president through his remarks, but his call for civility was reminiscent of the tone of a rival, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., in his 2012 campaign announcement last week.
And it stood in contrast to some of the rhetoric from leading Republicans aligned with the “tea party” movement, such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is considering a run for president, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who formally announced her candidacy in Iowa on Monday.
At both stops, Romney pointed to the warmth between former President Reagan and former Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill as an example of what is needed in the Capitol.
“I worked with [former Massachusetts Sen.] Ted Kennedy, for Pete’s sakes,” Romney said in Concord, noting that they disagreed on “almost everything.”
One issue that Kennedy and Romney worked closely on was legislation expanding healthcare coverage in Massachusetts. He recalled, to laughter, that at the ceremonial signing of the Massachusetts healthcare law, the Democrat had joked that when he and Romney agreed on a piece of legislation “it proves only one thing – one of us didn’t read it.”
“The truth was we had both read it and we’d found some common ground,” Romney said, “and I think that has to happen in Washington.”