CONCORD, N.H. — Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman had New Hampshire to themselves Friday while the rest of the field remained in Iowa and much of the attention remained focused on Rick Perry's entrance into the race.
Though both Romney and Huntsman will be on the ballot at Saturday's Iowa straw poll, neither has competed aggressively there. After Thursday's debate in Ames, they quickly headed to New Hampshire, positioning themselves in front of voters and activists before Perry swoops in for the first time on Saturday.
Huntsman spent the day hosting a discussion with business owners in Manchester and visiting a Concord restaurant, where he acknowledged that Perry "brings some real successes to the race" in terms of the Texas governor's record on job creation and the economy. But he emphasized his own successes as a former Utah governor and suggested voters want a well-rounded candidate rather than a career politician.
"We come at this campaign from the private sector, from having been a successful governor and also someone who understands the world in which we live, and I think that's going to be important to people," he said.
He also offered perhaps his sharpest criticism yet of Romney, saying the former Massachusetts governor acted irresponsibly in not immediately staking a clear position on the debt-ceiling debate while Congress was negotiating with President Barack Obama.
"You don't wait till the very end, as Gov. Romney did, and put your finger to the wind and basically come down on the safe side politically. I don't think that's leadership," Huntsman said. "The presidency is about exerting leadership, and if you're not willing to show leadership on something as important as the debt ceiling, it begs the question, When are you going to show some leadership?"
Romney, meanwhile, joined roughly 200 Granite State voters Friday night at the home of conservative leader Ovide Lamontagne. It was his second visit this week to the state that holds the earliest presidential primary and which Romney has made central to his early state strategy.Comment on this story
He was introduced as a "nearly native son of New Hampshire" and joked about paying local tolls and property taxes on his Wolfeboro summer home.
Asked about his absence from Iowa on the eve of the straw poll, Romney said, "I'm happy to be in Manchester tonight. I respect deeply the Ames straw poll process. And were I participating this year in that process, I'd be there."
Some candidates who were active in the state earlier in the year, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, haven't been back in a month or more as they focus on Saturday's straw poll. Others have maintained a minimal presence in New Hampshire simply because they have advantages with voters in other early states.
Perry's visit Saturday, following his campaign launch in South Carolina, will be his first trip this year to New Hampshire. It comes soon after a handful of New Hampshire Republicans trekked to Texas to encourage Perry to run.