HARTFORD – Based on an odd twist of timing, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney kicked off his general election campaign Wednesday in one of the bluest states in the nation: Connecticut.
Speaking one day after his closest contender, Rick Santorum, dropped out of the race, Romney blasted President Barack Obama as he was surrounded by women at a woman-owned business in downtown Hartford.
With Santorum out of the race in a move that surprised many for its timing, Romney was making his first public appearance as the undisputed leader for the GOP nomination.
“I can’t think of a better place to kick off a presidential, general election campaign for our Republican nominee than right here in Hartford, Connecticut!’’ state party chairman Jerry Labriola told the crowd while introducing Romney.
“We planned it this way all along,’’ Labriola added as the crowd laughed.
Faced with a gender gap as polls show him behind as much as 19 points among women, Romney stood with women on both sides as he focused on an economy in which women are struggling to find jobs. He promised free-market reforms that would help both women and commerce. During a 17-minute stump speech, he repeatedly returned to those themes in a crowded room at the AlphaGraphics franchise at 915 Main Street in downtown Hartford.
It didn’t take him long to target Obama. The president, he said, once carried a message of hope and change. Now, Romney said, the message is “let’s hope for a change.”
“The president says, ‘Oh, I didn’t cause this recession.’ That’s true,’’ Romney told the crowd. “He just made it worse. And made it last longer. And because it lasted longer, more and more women lost jobs. … This president has failed America’s women, and if I’m the next president of the United States, I will go to work to get American women good jobs, rising incomes, and growing businesses.’’
Romney said he had spent some time talking to the five women who stood behind him, from construction, consulting and printing businesses. “They don’t feel that government is their ally,” he said. Instead, Romney said, they want government “to get out of their way.”
Romney said he was tired of hearing Obama saying Republicans are waging a war on women, adding, “The real war on women is being waged by the president’s failed economic policies.’’
Connecticut Democrats hit back quickly, saying that Romney’s national campaign has stumbled on women’s issues. They disputed Romney’s claim – both mentioned in the speech Wednesday and on a campaign flier – that 92.3 percent of the jobs lost under Obama have been held by women. Romney cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, but even some of Romney’s supporters in the crowd said they had not heard that statistic.
State Democratic chairwoman Nancy DiNardo noted that the Romney campaign was slow to respond to a question about the Lily Ledbetter Act that calls for equal pay for women and men.
“The Romney campaign has claimed that ‘92.3 percent of the job losses during the Obama years have been women,’ but no one from his campaign – including his economic and policy advisers – can offer a clear explanation of this claim,’’ DiNardo said Wednesday. “Economists have overwhelmingly attributed this statistic to the nature of the recession Obama inherited. Mitt Romney’s position on equal pay for women is ‘We’ll get back to you on that.’ That’s not an answer that gives Connecticut women any confidence that Mitt Romney would stand up for them and that’s not an answer that gives Connecticut families any confidence that Mitt Romney is committed to restoring middle class security.’’
As Wednesday’s campaign appearance began, Romney stood at the front of the crowded room with Karen Brinker, the owner of the printing franchise.
“What do you think, Karen? Can we fit a few more hundred people in here?’’ Romney asked.
“If you get elected, we’ll expand the business,’’ Brinker responded.
Most of Romney’s top supporters in Connecticut attended the event, including key fundraisers L. Scott Frantz and Tom Foley of Greenwich. Frantz, a state senator, has been raising money for years for Romney, dating back to his 2008 run for president.
“He was hitting the nail on the head today with respect to the women’s issues and problems with respect to employment,’’ Frantz said after the speech. “He’s got all the right approaches and answers, I believe. … The data that they put out there is reliable. It’s stunning to me.’’
A family friend of Romney, Frantz said, “He’s already been a great success. He doesn’t need to go do this. He wants his experience to be replicated for everyone out there to varying degrees.’’
Like Frantz, former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays was sitting in the front near Romney – and was mentioned by Romney at the beginning of his speech. Shays, who served for 21 years in Congress, knows Santorum personally and said that he “needed to get out’’ of the race.
Shays added, “Newt needs to get out’’ of the race so that Romney can focus his campaign exclusively on Obama.
Brinker, the owner of AlphaGraphics, said in a telephone interview earlier Wednesday that she was very surprised to receive a telephone call – less than one week ago – about hosting the event.
As a woman who owns two business franchises with a total of 24 employees, Brinker had been on a list of possible hosts for the campaign.
But she did not know that at the time.
Since then, it has been a whirlwind of activity as Brinker prepared for Romney’s arrival Wednesday. After last Thursday’s telephone call, an advance member of Romney’s team arrived on Friday to check out the site, and Brinker did not receive confirmation that the event would actually happen until Monday — 48 hours before Romney’s arrival.
Behind the scenes, she had not known that telephone calls were being made to Hartford area chamber of commerce officials as the Romney campaign attempted to find successful, women-owned businesses for the event.
She fit the bill.
“It’s as simple as that,” Brinker said. “That’s all it was.”
A non-political person and 67-year-old grandmother, Brinker had never met Romney or been involved in political campaigns in the past.
“I consider myself a business person, and that’s the reason I said yes to the event,” she said.
So what will Romney do that President Barack Obama cannot?
“As a business owner and mother and grandmother, the biggest problem is our growing national debt,” Brinker answered. With Romney’s experience in turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics, he can do the same for the United States, she said.
A Greenwich resident, Brinker owns two AlphaGraphics franchises: one in Greenwich, one in Hartford. The Greenwich store has been open for 22 years and has been successful in the business of printing brochures, manuals, annual reports, mailing pieces, and anything else needed by small and large business customers. In 2009, Brinker purchased the Hartford franchise, which is part of a network of about 300 franchises nationwide. The network is 41 years old and is based in Salt Lake City.
Romney has made several swings through Connecticut to attend private fundraisers but Wednesday’s stop was his first campaign visit in recent memory.
After his Hartford appearance, Romneywas scheduled to hold a town hall meeting for small businesses later in the day at a hotel in Warwick, R.I.
In the most recent Quinnipiac University Poll on the choice for a Republican candidate, Romney led the choices with 42 percent of the vote. Santorum, who suspended his campaign for president Tuesday, followed Romney in the poll.
An ABC News/Washington Post national survey of female voters released Tuesday showed President Obama outpolling Romney 57 percent to 38 percent.
In the minutes before Romney arrived, Bob Seeger’s “Still The Same” played on the public address system while information was being handed out about President Obama and bad economic news for women. Other song selections were “Only in America,” “You Make My Dream Come True,” and “More Than A Feeling” by the group Boston.
State Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican, said the timing of Wednesday’s event was important.
“I thought it was nice for Hartford to have this splash on the day after Rick Santorum,” Kissel said. “I think it’s great for Hartford and for Connecticut.”
Senate GOP leader John McKinney of Fairfield agreed.
“The timing for us is exciting because this is his first live public appearance” in the general election campaign, McKinney said. “At the end of the day, Rick Santorum made the right decision. If he lost Pennsylvania, it would have damaged him beyond this election cycle.”
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