Cheryl Senter, Associated Press
MILFORD, N.H. — In an election that's supposed to hinge on jobs and the economy, the Republican presidential contest in recent months has been defined by almost everything else.
Immigration and children's vaccines. Race and religion. Homosexuality and health care. The issues range far from the economic woes that concern most voters, but they have captivated Republicans in New Hampshire and other early voting states, providing the candidates with ways to distinguish themselves from their rivals. The biggest applause lines on the campaign trail usually have little to do with a candidate's economic positions.
The dynamic was on display Monday, even as the contenders prepared for a Tuesday night debate focused solely on the economy.
"Even the richest man can't buy back his past," intoned a web video that Texas Gov. Rick Perry rolled out to assail chief rival Mitt Romney's personal wealth and the Massachusetts health care overhaul that Romney signed into law. "America's most damaging prescription: RomneyCare," the video said.
Romney mentioned it during a town hall-style meeting here and suggested that his opponents would use any issue they could to tear him down.
A few minutes earlier, Romney had jabbed Perry on immigration.
"If you're an illegal — an illegal — in Texas and you've lived there for three years, you can go to college there and get a $100,000 break on your tuition. These magnets have got to stop," Romney said. A packed VFW hall cheered the knock at Perry's support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
Less than three months before the first voting of the GOP nomination fight, the candidates are raising a host of issues that don't speak directly to addressing the nation's 9.1 percent unemployment rate or the frail economy. They do talk about jobs and the economy to varying degrees. But few — if any — have talked in specifics, preferring to stick to general Republican orthodoxy of lower taxes, less spending and rolled-back regulations as a way to fix what ails the country. They differ little on prescriptions.
The man they hope to oust from the White House, President Barack Obama, has focused much more on the economy. On Tuesday, he will be talking about jobs in Pittsburgh, and on Friday he will travel to a suburban Detroit auto plant — with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who's in the U.S. for a visit expected to focus on trade.
Only a few of the Republicans — Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman among them — have rolled out plans aimed at stimulating growth in a country that some fear is teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession. Perry, who joined the race in mid-August, plans to announce his economic plan this fall. Businessman Herman Cain has spelled out a tax reform plan.
The campaigns argue that the nation's economic woes are directly linked to such issues as immigration and health care. And they note that voters will ask the questions they want — even if they stray from what they tell pollsters are their top issues.
Indeed, Romney opened his Monday event by talking about the economy, a centerpiece of his campaign for much of the summer, but an hour later he had answered far more questions about health care, illegal immigration and labor unions.
The lack of economic focus caught the attention of at least one participant, 53-year-old Leen Intveld, from nearby Brookline.
"I was surprised," said Intveld, an independent voter attending his first town hall meeting who plans to vote for Romney in the Republican primary. "I'm worried about the economy. That's the top issue for me."
For most others, too, it seems.
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