MANCHESTER, N.H. -- On a crisp autumn evening with one of his main GOP presidential rivals across town, Mitt Romney could have gone on the attack his Friday town hall -- his 15th in New Hampshire. He never mentioned Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s name.
The GOP field’s two most formidable fundraisers vied for Granite State votes here at two evening events just five minutes apart. Perry headlined a banquet of conservatives at a downtown hotel; Romney took questions on Social Security, government spending and healthcare from more than 200 locals at a nearby banquet hall.
When a questioner asked about illegal immigrants who “take over our hospital and make true Americans wait," Romney seized the opportunity to reiterate take a sidelong swipe at Perry by reiterating his support for a border fence and opposition to “magnets” that Romney says draw illegal immigrants. Perry has questioned the need for the fence and supports college tuition breaks for students who were brought to the country illegally as children.
In the state to file his papers as a candidate in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, Perry defended his support for the tuition breaks, saying it was in his state’s financial interest to create taxpayers rather than “tax wasters.”
Romney had an unwelcome wagon ready for his rival’s arrival in the state. Early in the day, his campaign announced the defections to his camp of two prominent leaders who had formerly supported Perry -- social conservative Maureen Mooney and state Rep. Norm Major – to the Romney camp.
In a radio interview earlier in the day, Perry took aim at Romney. “Like it or not, the governor’s been on opposite sides of a lot of issues. First he was for banning handguns, now he’s Mr. Second Amendment. He was the father of Obamacare,” Perry said, a reference to the health insurance mandate that Romney signed into law as governor of Massachusetts – a law that President Obama has cited as a model for his own health care legislation.
At the evening banquet, however, Perry avoided a direct attack on the former Massachusetts governor, a New Hampshire homeowner. Still, the Texas governor portrayed himself as the more consistent conservative. For some candidates, opposition to abortion “is a slogan for the campaign; it’s how to get some votes,” said Perry, adding: “For me it’s an enduring principle.”
The Texas governor took aim at another Republican rival, declaring that Herman Cain’s tax plan would “expand your tax footprint…like 9 percent expansion.”
“I love Herman. Is he the best? I have fun with him,” the unusually ebullient Perry laughed. “And thank you Herman for having paid for the event tonight.” (The Cain for President campaign was a gold-level sponsor of the dinner).
The Texas governor noted that he was missing the chance to root for his home state baseball team, attending the banquet instead of watching the Texas Rangers battle the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh game of the World Series. Perry said it was worth it to meet his fellow diners, including an “angel” of a boy – blind and autistic – who opened the event with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem.
Across town, Romney outlined his plans for reducing the deficit, listing the pullout of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan among his proposed cuts. Last week, Romney came out very strongly against Obama's plan to bring out US troops home from Iraq.
In answer to a question, Romney criticized one of Obama’s budget cuts -- cutbacks to the manned space flight program. "I don’t know that the president has a real mission for NASA right now other than close it down, which I think it a mistake."
Asked on his way out whom he would be rooting for in the World Series, Romney smiled and said his team would be the Cardinals. Perry, the Rangers fan, was already enroute back to disconsolate Texas before his team lost the baseball championship.