CONCORD, N.H. — Republican presidential contenders courting an intensely partisan GOP primary electorate are promoting their experience in working with home-state Democrats to tackle big problems.
With most voters craving an end to intense polarization in Washington, the message of bipartisan collaboration is seeping into debates, interviews and other campaign appearances. The candidates, particularly former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, are trying to broaden their appeal to independents, whose support will be critical in the general election next fall against President Barack Obama.
The president ran as an across-the-aisle dealmaker, but he hasn't lived up to that image in his first term. His top Republican rivals seem to sense an opening, even though they, too, have mixed records when it comes to working with the opposition party.
"This is not the Democrats' country or the Republicans' country. This is our country," Perry said during a recent campaign stop in Iowa, arguing that the country's troubles are ideologically blind and not Democratic vs. Republican.
Romney often tells supporters that compromise was necessary in Massachusetts, where Democrats dominated. At a recent debate, he jabbed at Obama and said: "The real course for America is to have someone who is a leader, who can identify people in both parties who care more about the country than they care about getting re-elected."
Such talk of compromise isn't usually popular in the Republican primary campaign, where the usual emphasis is on bashing government regulation, illegal immigrants and anything Obama.
Conservatives who make up the party's base don't like the two signature issues in which Romney and Perry have demonstrated an ability to work with Democrats and Republicans: Massachusetts' health care overhaul and the Texas law giving in-state college tuition to some illegal immigrants.
But public polling suggests that strong majorities of Republicans and Democrats favor political leaders who work together. A recent CBS/New York Times poll found that 85 percent of Americans say they want to see both parties compromise some positions to get things done.
All that explains why Romney and Perry, seen as the candidates most likely to win the nomination, are trying to courting ideologically diverse general election voters without angering the passionate partisans who dominate the primary season.
Critics say the Republicans are trying to have it both ways, sometimes in the same speech. The GOP candidates hammer Obama and congressional Democrats while also promising to bring the nation together.
Calls for bipartisanship do invite more scrutiny on claims of cooperation. History suggests that the candidates often collaborated only when politically convenient.
Texas state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a 20-year veteran of the Legislature and the Senate Democratic leader, said Perry is ready to work with Democrats on popular issues such as veterans' benefits and human trafficking, but won't hesitate to ignore their opposition in many cases.
Van de Putte, author of the law allowing illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to pay in-state tuition, said Perry worked with her because of the economic argument behind the policy.
But in other debates, Perry used the power of his office to ignore Democrats and even Republicans in the Legislature. During his first legislative session, for example, Perry vetoed more than 80 bills without warning, and that infuriated lawmakers. He also ordered mandatory vaccines for girls without legislative approval, a decision he later said was a mistake.
"He kind of listens to you, and he works with you when he agrees, and we come to a common goal," Van de Putte said. "If it's a disagreement, it's going to continue to be a disagreement."
Romney gets similarly mixed reviews.
Phil Johnson, the Democratic Party chairman in Massachusetts during Romney's only term, tells a tale of two governors.
"During the first two years of his administration, he was relatively moderate, even in some cases a progressive governor, who understood that that was the profile that fit Massachusetts," Johnston said. "But about halfway through the administration, he clearly made a decision to go national, and he made a very sharp break with his previous moderate self."
Romney worked with the Democratic Legislature, for example, to pass the state's landmark health care package about midway through his four-year term. He signed the bill into law to great fanfare in a public ceremony, but later returned to his office and vetoed several provisions.
"It was sort of a cheap political act," Johnston said. "He was not held in high esteem by Democrats in the Legislature."
As a presidential candidate, Romney often says he collaborated with Massachusetts Democrats to establish a $2 billion rainy day fund by the time he left the governor's office. Building the fund was a particular priority of Democratic leaders, however, even before Romney took office. While Romney had veto power, legislative Democrats ultimately controlled the budget process.
Despite holes in their records of bipartisanship, expect to hear more from Romney and Perry about compromise in the coming months.
"It is part of the culture and it'd be naÏve to think it would change overnight," said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire-based Romney adviser. "But the fact is, (Romney) is acknowledging it and saying, 'I've got to create an atmosphere in which results can occur.' That's something that is very appealing to voters."
Associated Press writer Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.
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