CORNWALL, Pennsylvania — Two days into a multi-state swing through small-town America, Mitt Romney is being reminded of the power and peril of retail campaigning as he seeks to rally voters against President Barack Obama's reelection.
The Republican's bus-tour across six battleground states began Friday in New Hampshire, at the same farm where he kicked off his presidential run nearly a year ago, with the ultimate goal of stealing precious victories that could send him to the White House in November.
Of the six states in the tour -- including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan -- Obama won them all in 2008, and team Romney is quick to say their man is campaigning on the president's turf.
Face-to-face contact with voters is the lifeblood of any political campaign. But it also makes it more difficult for his handlers to control every element, and disruptions arise, as they did Saturday in Pennsylvania.
While Romney pressed the flesh and rallied voters by casting Obama's policies as dangerous for America, the president's supporters mobilized against the multimillionaire former businessman to argue that he is hardly the person who could best help struggling workingclass Americans.
Democrats, including former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, held a counter-event at a Wawa gas station in Quakertown where Romney was set to make an appearance. The protesters reportedly outnumbered Romney supporters.
Sensing a potentially embarrassing scene, the campaign improvised, shuttling the candidate to another Wawa gas station about three miles (five kilometers) away for a stop last barely 10 minutes.
"I understand I had a surrogate over there already, so we decided to pick a different place," Romney said referring to Rendell, an Obama supporter who nonetheless recently made comments critical of the incumbent.
The gas station incident underscores the hyper-competitive nature of the Obama-Romney race as the two jockey for position four and a half months ahead of the election.
The candidates have been chasing each other across swing states like Ohio, where they recently gave competing economic speeches on the same day. These cat-and-mouse tactics are expected to intensify as the campaign heats up.
Voters like Rich Yanochko, who works for the ambulance service in the town of Weatherly where Romney addressed hundreds of supporters Saturday, values a candidate's appearance outside the big cities, even if the events are heavily scripted and controlled.
A small-town bus tour "says that he's concerned about everybody," not just those in urban centers where large donations often roll in from wealthy benefactors.
Yanochko, 47, told AFP he thought Romney to be "genuine about what he's saying," but he voiced doubt about whether Romney's policies aimed at reducing unemployment -- currently at 8.2 percent -- would work better than Obama's.
"I think we need more jobs... but it's not any easy answer," he admitted. "That's why I'm here, to see what he has to say."
But a candidate's words during such intimate campaign stops can easily get drowned out by developments on the national stage, which is precisely what happened on Friday.
Romney's bus tour kickoff got lost in the shuffle a bit when Obama announced a change of policy to stop deportations of some young illegal immigrants.
Romney stepped off his bus to make a statement about the policy to reporters, but the focus was clearly on Obama.
Even Romney's attempt to show his funny side to the traveling press corps carried risk.
Gently ribbing reporters about the plush press bus, which was rented by the campaign to shuttle journalists around Pennsylvania, Romney scrawled a note and taped it near the entrance.
"You guys have it way too soft -- nice ride," he wrote, adding a "PS -- erased your hard drives."
That last line reportedly earned a rebuke from the Obama campaign, as it awkwardly recalled last year's Boston Globe investigation which revealed that several top aides from Romney's time as governor of Massachusetts bought their state-issued computer hard drives, and Romney administration emails were wiped off of a server.
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