Hartford — A relieved Connecticut Republican establishment embraced Mitt Romney on the first day of his general-election campaign Wednesday, enjoying the clarity brought to the presidential race by the abrupt end of Rick Santorum’s campaign.
“What a great day!” Republican State Chairman Jerry Labriola yelled, introducing Romney. “I can’t think of a better place to kick off a presidential general election campaign for our nominee than right here in Hartford, Conn.”
But Romney said nothing about Santorum, the conservative who seemed intent on staying alive until April 24, when Republicans go to the polls in five Northeastern states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York. He said nothing about a new phase of the campaign.
The theme of the day was an economic appeal to women, an attempt to undo damage to the GOP brand among women by a protracted primary campaign fought over cultural issues, uncomfortable terrain for Romney.
If nothing else, Romney was on message in Hartford. The focus was the performance of the economy under President Obama and how it has impacted women. During a carefully staged, 20-minute event, that was his sole topic.
“I was disappointed in listening to the president as he’s saying, ‘Oh, the Republicans are waging a war on women.’ The real war on women is being waged by the president’s failed economic policies,” Romney said.
Women account for 92.3 percent of the jobs lost during the Obama administration, Romney said, holding a mini-poster labeled, “Women and the Obama Economy.”
“Now the president says, ‘Oh, I didn’t cause this recession.’ That’s true. He just made it worse and made it last longer. And because it lasted longer, more and more women lost jobs.”
Romney wore a dark suit, though he slipped off his coat and rolled up the sleeves of his starched white shirt before grabbing a cordless microphone in front of an all-female human backdrop at AlphaGraphic, a female-owned printing franchise. The few men who took a place on the risers disappeared before Romney made his entrance.
The speech played well, but its broader effect likely was blunted by a Democratic counterattack over whether Romney supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a law Obama signed in 2009. It expands a woman’s ability to sue over equal-pay discrimination claims.
On a conference call with reporters, the best a Romney adviser could do was say, “We’ll get back to you on that.”
“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,” said Nancy DiNardo, the Connecticut Democratic state chairwoman.
Romney took no questions from reporters before leaving for a campaign event in Warwick, R.I., keeping to a schedule set when he thought he still faced contests in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The former governor of Massachusetts was heavily favored in Connecticut even before Santorum suspended his campaign. It was a turnaround from 2008, when exit polling showed that Romney was seen by Connecticut GOP voters as too conservative compared with John McCain, who won the primary.
His supporers here include Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield, the Republican minority leaders of the state House and Senate, and Tom Foley of Greenwich, the 2010 GOP nominee for governor. Much of the state Senate GOP caucus was in attendance.
Christopher Shays, the former congresssman competing with Linda McMahon for the U.S. Senate nomination, was the only diginitary Romney recognized by name in his remarks.
Romney smiled and told the crowd that he and Obama agreed on one thing.
“He said this is going to be a defining election, and I agree. There are pretty dramatic differences between the two of us. His vision for America is a European-style social welfare state, where he promises bigger and bigger checks from the government to almost everybody,” Romney said. “My vision for America is a land that is free and filled with opportunity.”
Romney said Obama wants to transform America, while he wants to restore America.
“We’re the greatest nation in the history of the earth,” he said. “It’s time for us to stop apologizing for success here at home. And we will never apologize for success abroad.”
He stopped short of directly accusing Obama of apologizing for America, an oft-repeated claim that has been largely discredited.
Often derided as stiff on the trail, Romney was loose. He smilled and urged everyone to vote “multiple times” for him. He hastened to add, “The only way you can do that legally is by talking to your friends and telling them to vote for me.”
Republicans said they found Romney relaxed and confident as he focused on the economy.
“You listen to him now versus when he first ran for president four years ago, he’s extraordinarily comfortable with who he is, with his message,” McKinney said. “It’s the right message for his country.”
“He is now the Republican candidate for president. And this was his opening salvo. It was for me one of incredible hope and excitement, and feeling like he is going to pull this off,” Shays said.
Jayme Stevenson, the first selectwoman of Darien, said Romney’s message will reach women.
“It’s a fantastic message,” Stevenson said. “It resonates particularly with me, because I have four daughters, two of whom are just about to graduate from college. So these startling statistics about the female unemployment rate under the Obama administration is unacceptable.”
Not everyone was won over.
Outside the event on Main Street stood a Santorum supporter, Chris O’Brien of Wolcott. He greeted Romney supporters with a sign that challenged, “Convince me!”
Jacqueline Sessa of Wethersfield, who described herself as a Bay State transplant, was trying to do just that.
Was she succeeding?
“Not yet,” he said. “It’s going to be up to Mitt to reach out to Rick and his supporters.”