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On bus tour, Mitt Romney looks to connect with Main Street

Mitt Romney will begin a bus tour of six swing states Friday, as the millionaire Republican presidential challenger and former business executive tries to convince ordinary Americans that he’s more in touch with their economic plight than President Barack Obama is.

Romney will start his journey where his White House bid began a year ago, at the 300-acre Scamman Farm in Stratham, N.H., and will spend the afternoon at a community ice cream social in Milford, N.H. On Saturday, he’ll head for Pennsylvania, followed by trips next week to Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.

Heading mostly to small and midsize towns, he’s hoping to meet the kinds of folks who feel the daily sting of an economy that’s been slow to recover, people who recoil when they’re reminded that Obama said last week that the private sector was “doing fine.”

Romney does risk drawing attention to the issue of his ability to connect to ordinary Americans. He’s often awkward when he’s publicly spontaneous, and he can project an image of a patrician unable to relate to the masses.

“I’ve always been suspicious of people with white shirts and blue jeans,” said Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

Still, Romney’s bus tour offers a potential payoff.

“Voters inclined to back Romney tend to be older and more traditional,” said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “Doing plain old-fashioned American things like visiting small towns is not a bad move.”

By starting in New Hampshire, Romney gives himself other advantages. He has a home in Wolfeboro, he won the New Hampshire primary easily last winter and he’s remembered as the governor of next-door Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. A lot of southern New Hampshire residents have deep Massachusetts roots.

“We’re one of his home states, and because of that he’s popular,” said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, N.H.

Obama has an edge in statewide polls, but Romney’s camp thinks his ties to New Hampshire give him a good chance at the battleground state. Lesperance saw Romney’s business background as a plus in a state where independent voters often want no-nonsense problem-solvers running their governments.

The road could get bumpier when Romney reaches Pennsylvania. Obama won the state by 10 percentage points in 2008, despite an expensive effort by Republican John McCain. A June 5-10 Quinnipiac University poll gave the president a 6 percentage-point lead in Pennsylvania, though a May 29 to June 4 Franklin & Marshall poll had him up by 12 points.

“When it’s within 6 points, the state is in play,” said Tim Malloy, Quinnipiac poll assistant director.

Still, Romney faces big obstacles in Pennsylvania: Obama has a 15 percentage-point Quinnipiac lead among women; Democrats have been pushing hard to paint Republicans as insensitive to the unique concerns of female voters.

The state hasn’t given its electoral votes to a Republican since 1988. And this year, popular Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is running for re-election and is well ahead of his rivals.

Romney will meet Pennsylvanians who’ve weathered a lot of economic chaos. “Romney could have difficulty telling people he’s in touch. He doesn’t have that kind of personality,” Madonna said. “Of course, neither does Obama.”

Romney has one advantage: It’s hard for a president to walk around small towns and mingle. Romney can, while offering voters a jolt of confidence that things can get better. He plans to stop at a Father’s Day breakfast in Brunswick, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, as well as Newark in central Ohio and Troy in western Ohio.

Next up is Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker last week became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall campaign, despite a strong effort by Democrats and labor unions to defeat him. Also on the agenda are Iowa, where an NBC-Marist poll May 22-24 found the presidential candidates tied, and Michigan, where Romney grew up, the son of popular 1960s Gov. George Romney.

Romney’s pitch will be that Obama has made the economy worse.

“The reason it has taken so long for this recovery to gain traction and to put people back to work is in large measure because of the policy choices the president made,” Romney told the Business Roundtable earlier this week. “He is not responsible for whatever improvement we might be seeing. Instead, he is responsible for the fact that it’s taken so long to see this recovery and the recovery is so tepid.”

Consumer confidence dropped in May, according to the Conference Board, a New York-based research firm that compiles such data. Consumers were less positive about current business and labor market conditions, and more pessimistic about the short-term outlook, said Lynn Franco, the director of economic indicators.

That’s the mood Romney can address. “Did he live the life of the average millworker? No,” Lesperance said. “But neither did the president.”

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