MILFORD, N.H. — Mitt Romney was supposed to depart from his usual campaign approach on Friday, and he did — though not the way his strategists had envisioned.
The candidate kicked off a five-day bus tour, an ambitious barnstormer through small-town America that was billed as an effort to introduce Romney to a new set of voters. And the first two events, including an ice cream social on the village green in Milford, kept him solidly in his comfort zone.
But the effort to connect with voters amid folksy New England imagery competed with the unpredictable news cycle, as Romney was forced to wade gingerly into the debate about a new White House policy paving the way for the granting of work permits and temporary residency to some young illegal immigrants.
Still, the scenery and theatrics of the first day of the bus trip set the tone the campaign hopes to convey over the coming days. After a live bluegrass show, with bales of hay in the background, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte introduced Romney as his campaign bus pulled up alongside the crowd on the Scamman Farm in Stratham.
Romney said: "President Obama's plans have Americans wondering whether our future can be as bright as our past. But that lack of faith is a bridge we cannot cross."
He continued, "That's why, from now until November, our campaign will carry a simple message: America's greatest days are yet ahead."
From now until Tuesday, at least, Romney is carrying his message specifically to small towns in six states that Obama won in 2008 and which his campaign now sees as key battlegrounds: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.
"We'll be traveling on what are often called the backroads of America," Romney said. "But I think our tour is going to take us along what I'll call the backbone of America."
The hope is that after an intensive string of fundraising activity, Romney's burst of retail campaigning can capitalize on a rough patch for Obama, helping Republicans finally gain an edge in some key battleground states.
In some ways, the first day's events seemed more of a warm-up than a representative example of the tour's stated goals. At the tour's outset, Romney's strategist said it would take the candidate to places that are not necessarily traditional campaign stops. That could, of course, rule out the entire state of New Hampshire, given its prominent role in the primary process.
The campaign also said the crowds would not necessarily be packed with supporters. But people who turned out invariably had Romney stickers and said they had received tickets from the campaign or from other Republican connections. And some of them drove up from Massachusetts.
During his speeches, Romney did not address Obama's executive order to limit deportations of young people who came to the country illegally through no fault of their own. However, in a brief statement after scooping ice cream in Milford, Romney criticized Obama for making it "more difficult to reach a long-term solution." He took no questions before reboarding his bus, decorated with images of small-town America.