Mitt Romney launched his second presidential campaign in New Hampshire on Thursday, but it was former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin who stole the spotlight.
Romney’s long-expected announcement was met with immediate scrutiny from both his right and his left, which highlighted his front-runner status among the GOP field.
“Now, in the third year of his four-year term, we have more than promises and slogans to go by. Barack Obama has failed America,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “When he took office, the economy was in recession. He made it worse. And he made it last longer.”
The White House strongly disputed Romney’s characterization of the president’s economic record, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) gleefully played up criticism of Romney by other GOP hopefuls who were also visiting New Hampshire or on their way there.
One of those critics was Palin, who grabbed headlines by taking a direct shot at Romney less than an hour before he made his speech — and doing so in his own backyard.
She hit Romney in one of his most vulnerable spots, attacking the healthcare law he signed during his time in office.
“I think that he’ll have maybe a bit more challenges with independents who make up the Tea Party movement,” Palin said, according to multiple reports, in Massachusetts, where Romney served from 2003 to 2007. She was referring to the law’s requirement that citizens buy health insurance or face a penalty, a key similarity between Romney’s and Obama’s healthcare plans.
“In my opinion, any mandate coming from government is not a good thing,” she said of the plan, which is disliked by conservatives and seen as one of the biggest risks to Romney’s chances of winning the nomination.
Palin was in New Hampshire on Thursday evening as part of her national bus tour. Romney told ABC News he thought her appearance in the first-in-the-nation primary state was a coincidence. His campaign declined to respond to Palin, whose trip has only stoked speculation that she’ll enter the race.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) piled on, too, calling Obama’s and Romney’s healthcare plans “almost exactly the same,” according to The Associated Press. Giuliani is scheduled to be in New Hampshire on Friday, as is former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
Romney addressed the healthcare plan, trying to turn it into an asset by integrating it into his stump speech, echoing the case he made last month during a major healthcare address in Michigan.
“I took it on and hammered out a solution that took a bad situation and made it better — not perfect, but it was a state solution for a state problem,” he said.
The DNC seized on the intrusions into Romney’s spotlight, blasting out a short, animated Web video that depicted the bus Palin’s been riding as running over Romney. The committee released a video earlier in the day that took a page out of the 2008 playbook against Romney, casting him as the “most notorious flip-flopper in modern political history.”
Romney’s leaner, more disciplined campaign (compared to his 2008 effort) allowed the attacks to go unanswered, though, letting the speech at a farm in Stratham, N.H., speak for itself.
“I’m Mitt Romney. I believe in America. And I’m running for president of the United States,” he said at a chili cook-off.
The kickoff was also stylistically different from his 2008 bid, when he launched his campaign in his native Michigan and was dogged by snickers about a robotic personality. Romney sought to project a more relaxed image at the Granite State farm, joking about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry and going with a tieless outfit — a contrast to his more buttoned-up image from 2008.
He and his wife, Anne Romney, served chili to supporters before the former governor spoke.
Despite grumbling among Republicans with the presidential field, Romney has some advantages in the fight for the GOP nomination. He has high name recognition and has been through the presidential gantlet before. He also has a long list of supporters and is a formidable fundraiser — bringing in almost $10 million in a one-day blitz last month. Plus, he has the personal wealth to invest into the campaign.
Romney has been more measured in his approach to his campaign this cycle compared to his last run. And by launching his bid in New Hampshire, he signaled the importance of the state to his campaign strategy. Romney owns a house there and came in second during the 2008 primary.
His speech Thursday made no mention of the social issues that can dominate Republican primaries, and only offered additional criticism of Obama on issues of foreign policy. Romney accused Obama of weak leadership in Libya and of abandoning Israel, and said that the administration was wrong to set a timeline for withdrawing from Afghanistan.
The White House sought to rebut Romney’s assertions about the president’s management of the economy and foreign policy, but didn’t take any of the direct shots that the DNC, Palin or Giuliani had taken.
“There will be a time and a place for the president to engage in the 2012 election, and my guess is that will be sometime in 2012,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at his daily press briefing.
While Carney would not respond directly to Romney’s attack, the press secretary did launch into a lengthy recitation of what Obama was facing when he came into office and what he has done to help the economy.
“The circumstances were unprecedented save for the Great Depression,” he said.
— Sam Youngman contributed.
This story was originally posted at 1:44 and updated at 8:30 p.m.