|U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign event at the Scamman Farm in Stratham, New Hampshire on June 15, 2012. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - For Mitt Romney, at least part of the road to the White House is a designated bus lane.
The Republican presidential candidate set out Friday for a marathon five-day, six-state, 2,500-kilometre bus tour trying to convince everyday Americans President Obama doesn't care about them.
"Everywhere I go I meet people who represent the best of America. They're hopeful, hard-working, determined and proud. But they're also anxious, and they're worried," Romney said in New Hampshire to kick off his rubber-chicken road trip. "And they're tired of a detached and distant president who never seems to hear their voices. And I hear you and I'll make sure I'll continue to hear the people of America when I'm president of the United States if I get your support."
The states on Romney's "Every Town Counts" itinerary -- New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan -- are seen as some of the most crucial in November's election. Recent polls show Romney and Obama are tied in three of them, and Wisconsin, once seen as a safe Democrat state since it has voted that way since 1984, could be up for grabs now too given the strength of the Republican organization there that helped GOP Governor Scott Walker fend off a recall vote last week.
But as much as Romney will be testing swing-state messaging in Anytown, USA -- his tour is stopping mostly in small towns -- he'll also be feasting on ice cream, pancakes, burgers and rubbery chicken with average Joes to practice his skills mingling with voters. One knock against the enormously wealthy Romney -- who said he liked to fire people, doesn't follow NASCAR but knows team owners, and boasted about supporting the Detroit auto industry by owning several Cadillacs at once -- is that he can't relate to middle-class Americans.
The bus tour will also be a proving ground for potential running mates, like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Congressman Paul Ryan and Senators Kelly Ayotte and Rob Portman, who will join Romney for events on the trail.
But Democrats aren't letting Romney steal all the headlines.
The Democratic National Committee has organized a bus tour of their own, and is planning to hit the same states as Romney over the next five days. Their trip, dubbed "Romney Economics: The Middle-Class Americans Under the Bus" tour, is accompanied by a new television attack ad campaign targeting Romney's time at the firm Bain Capital, which Democrats say closed factories and laid off workers.
And a group critical of Romney's candidacy from Moveon.org are tailing his bus in a Cadillac with NASCAR decals and a fake dog strapped to the roof.
The Romney road trip wraps up Tuesday with a rally in Holland State Park in southwestern Michigan.