APPLETON, Wisc. — Mitt Romney opened his campaign Friday for Wisconsin’s Republican presidential primary as though victory were a foregone conclusion.
Ignoring his GOP rivals, Romney arrived here in the Fox Valley with his latest in a string of high-profile supporters announcing endorsements: Rep. Paul D. Ryan, one of Wisconsin’s best-known if controversial Republicans.
The message, delivered explicitly by Ryan on Fox News: It’s time for the party to close ranks behind Romney and join the fight to oust President Obama.
For months, Romney has periodically ceased attacking GOP rivals when the threat of an upset seems to recede, only to resume after another setback. Three independent polls this week have found Romney holding an edge over Rick Santorum in Wisconsin, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas running far behind. So on Friday, Romney had his eyes on the fall contest.
In Appleton, the setting for Romney’s appearance was an auditorium at Lawrence University with presidential trappings — a lectern, teleprompters and stern-faced Secret Service agents scanning the crowd for troublemakers.
“Out-of-touch liberals like Barack Obama say they want a strong economy, but they really don’t like businesses very much,” said Romney, who reprised criticism of the president as a champion of a “government-centered society” that stifles free enterprise.
Ryan’s presence the day after his budget plan passed the House was fitting as Romney offered his otherwise boilerplate call for smaller government and tax cuts “across the board for all Americans,” part of what he said was an “opportunity society.”
The Democratic National Committee, which describes Ryan’s plan as offering lavish giveaways to the rich at the expense of the middle class, released a video Friday lampooning what it called the “bromance” between Ryan and Romney, replete with hand-holding to the tune of “That’s Amore.”
Unmentioned by Romney was Santorum, his only serious opponent in Tuesday’s primary. Santorum has devoted most of the last week to working bowling alleys and banquet halls from Sheboygan to Chippewa Falls, contrasting his conservative credentials with Romney’s at every stop. The stakes for him are immense: If the former Pennsylvania senator loses Wisconsin, he will be hard-pressed to keep arguing that he can expand his base of support much beyond conservative evangelical Christians.
On a campaign swing across western Wisconsin on Friday, Santorum kept up his attacks on Romney.
“We need someone who can talk and relate to folks who are out there battling in this economy, feeling like they’re swimming alone — someone who can relate to them, who maybe doesn’t talk about being the CEO of a company and having, you know, jokes about firing people,” Santorum told a crowd in Hudson, ABC News reported.
Romney and his allies have far outspent Santorum’s forces in Wisconsin, mainly on ads pummeling the former senator.
But the Red, White and Blue Fund, a “super PAC” supporting Santorum, has been advertising heavily on local television in recent days, running a spot that trashes Romney’s fiscal record in Massachusetts. Also problematic for Romney in Wisconsin is his gaffe in joking about a factory closing on his father’s watch as chief executive of American Motors decades ago.
Despite the blizzard of ads, the presidential primary is being overshadowed by the recall election that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will face June 5. A state panel set the date Friday.
The Republican governor, whose clash with public employee unions has made him a national target for organized labor, is extremely popular with GOP primary voters, but has declined to back anyone in the presidential primary.
“He is plenty busy,” said Ciara Matthews, communications director for Walker’s campaign to survive the recall.