BOSTON — Former Gov. Mitt Romney shared lunch Friday with a small-but-enhanced group of Massachusetts Republicans as he sought to build hometown support — and tamp down potential backyard opposition — while he progresses toward a second White House campaign.
Romney dashed into the Union Club, a private meeting spot just down the street from the Statehouse, joined by his brother, Scott, former campaign manager Beth Myers and senior adviser Peter Flaherty. An hour later, he exited, carrying an unfinished, open-faced sandwich, asking reporters if they wanted a bite.
He also denied seeking any campaign support.
"This is a great delegation. I care very deeply about this team, and they're doing great work and working very hard to get good jobs for the people of Massachusetts," he said. "That's what this is all about."
As for presidential politics: "I'm not doing any campaigning, thanks."
Yet some attendees said Romney spoke of national themes, saying the country needed a new direction after two years of Democratic leadership under his potential 2012 opponent, President Barack Obama.
He also distinguished the first-in-the-nation universal health care law he signed as governor from the national one enacted last year by Obama.
Romney said states — not the federal government — should be free to design their own plans for covering the uninsured.
His ongoing challenge in winning over potential supporters was evident in the comments of one participant, Rep. Brad Hill of Ipswich. The Republican decribed himself as "very fond of Mitt Romney" and "99 percent" likely to support him in a reprise of his 2008 campaign.
But asked if he still wanted to assess other potential candidates, Hill said: "Of course. I think that would be the prudent thing to do."
Republicans are largely overshadowed in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. They hold just four seats in the 40-member state Senate. But the party gained 16 seats in the 160-member state House, pushing them over 30 members for the first time since 1996. They currently hold 31, with a 32nd one still the subject of a court challenge.
"He joked with us, 'It would have been nice to have this many when I was governor,'" said Hill.
Some of the new members were backed by tea party activists, with whom Romney has maintained an arm's-length distance.
While governor from 2003 to 2007, Romney tried to rebuild the party's legislative ranks. But the GOP ended up losing seats during his 2004 mid-term election, leaving some party activists unhappy.
In April 2006, Romney also signed the universal health care law. The bipartisan measure has been hailed locally for boosting the ranks of the insured to over 98 percent, but its mandate to obtain insurance or else face a tax penalty has been the object of derision by national conservatives.
The criticism intensified after Obama modeled the national plan after the Massachusetts plan, including the mandate and financial penalties.
Romney has labeled the president's plan "Obamacare."
The visit comes amid a quickening pace to activities leading to what is expected to be a formal announcement of a second campaign, perhaps in April.
Earlier this month, Romney traveled to Afghanistan, Israel and Jordan to meet with U.S. military leaders and national leaders such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Last weekend, Romney won a straw poll amid a small sampling of New Hampshire Republicans.
On Wednesday, he appeared on Fox News Channel's "Hannity" program to blast President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech. He said it lacked direction, and the former venture capitalist said he believed the lingering recession required a leader with business experience.
Romney is scheduled to deliver a Top 10 list on the CBS-TV "Late Show with David Letterman" next week. He's also slated to return to New Hampshire for a similar private session with state Republicans.
His first public appearance in the lead presidential primary state will be a March 5 appearance before a Carroll County Republican Committee dinner in Bartlett.