SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Working to solidify his frontrunner status, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spent his morning campaigning in New Hampshire then swung back through northwestern Iowa, a winning area for him in the 2008 race.
Mr. Romney’s hold on the lead position in the Iowa contest was clear outside the Family Table Restaurant in Le Mars, Iowa Saturday. The parking lot was full and the national media, including the major networks, had traveled three and half miles northwest of Des Moines to see him speak.
Inside, roughly 250 people crowded into the backroom of the restaurant where Mr. Romney’s son Craig introduced his father with a humorous story about his family’s annual triathlon and the elder Romney’s competitive spirit and determination not to come in last in the race, after his wife who had given birth two months prior.
"He did almost die trying and then passed out in a lawn chair afterward," Craig Romney said. "That’s the kind of hard work and determination he will bring to the White House."
For the most part, Mr. Romney kept his message positive, emphasizing the importance of changing the direction of the country and training his fire on President Obama.
"I don’t want to do what the president has said – fundamentally transform America," he said. "I want to make sure this is the best place in the world to be middle class…and to have confidence in the future. That is being shaken today.
Only once during his speech and question and answer session did Mr. Romney go slightly negative when he offered a thinly veiled attack on Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his decision to give illegal immigrants free tuition credits in Texas.
In response to a question, Mr. Romney also said he would veto the DREAM Act, if it passed Congress. The bill, would provide conditional permanent residency to a limited group of illegal immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the country as minors and lived here continuously for at least five years before the legislation’s enactment.
"I’m delighted with the idea that people who come to this country and serve in our military have a path to become citizens," he said. "…For those who come here illegally, the idea of giving them tuition credits I find contrary to a nation of laws."
Rep. Ron Paul, who traveled back to Texas to spend New Year’s Eve with his wife, and Romney are competing for the top spot, with Romney edging Mr. Paul 23 percent to 21 percent in an NBC/Marist poll published Friday. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came in third place with 15 percent, and Mr. Perry trailed just one percentage point behind at 14 percent.
A poll released Saturday by The Des Moines Register showed Romney and Paul statistically even at the front of the pack, as Romney had 24 percent while Paul had 22 percent. Santorum was third with 15 percent, Gingrich fourth with 12 percent support and Perry had 11 percent, while Bachmann trailed among likely voters with 7 percent.
In the early evening, roughly 300 people greeted Mr. Romney at an event at the Stony Creek Inn in Sioux City.
Mr. Romney thanked the crowd, which was spilling over into the lobby, for spending New Year's Eve with them, adding that he hoped he was not the "highlight" of their night.
"We should have booked a bigger room," he said enthusiastically.
Mr. Romney stuck to the same patriotic themes as earlier in the day, reciting lines from "America The Beautiful," one of his favorite songs, and explaining what the words mean to him.
"O beautiful for patriots dream that sees beyond the years," he said. "The patriots who founded this country recognized that what they were building, what they were crafting, was something beyond their time. In fact, the choices they made in constructing the foundation of America would lead this nation to be the strongest in the earth."
"That's why the president at the beginning of his term apologizing...it made us heartsick. I will never apologize for the greatness of America."
At one point, Mr. Romney asked the crowd if any of them were small businessmen, and about a dozen hands went up.
"Sometime I don't think the president likes you very much," he said. "I like the fact that you invest in America and create jobs."
The first questioner, a young man with a video camera, opened his question by stating that Iowa law prohibits bets above $5,000, a reference to a $10,000 wager Mr. Romney offered Mr. Perry in a debate in early December over his position on health care.
Mr. Romney quickly shut down the questioner, looking around the room for another person to call on.
"You got another question that's serious one?" he asked before moving on to an immigration question.
Later, after the question and answer session when Mr. Romney was shaking hands before exiting, the same young man was escorted out of the hotel after shouting more questions about the legality of Mr. Romney's $10,000 bet in Iowa.
In another unpredictable moment, a young girl sitting in the front row at the event asked Mr. Romney if he could bring back pop rocks candy, which is no longer widely sold in stores.
Mr. Romney didn't skip a beat.
"I used to remember those...it's been a long time," Mr. Romney said. "There are a lot of things I can blame on the president, I'm afraid that's not one of them."
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