Republican Mitt Romney kicked off a six-state bus tour Friday across what he called the "backbone of America," as he cast himself as more in touch with struggling voters than President Barack Obama.
The multi-millionaire challenging Obama for the White House in November's election is being joined by several top backers, including two potential vice presidential picks, on a journey taking him from New Hampshire through the industrial heartland of Ohio and up to Wisconsin.
His message at the first stop on his five-day "every town counts" journey reflected his longstanding view that Obama was in over his head in his efforts to turn the economy around.
"I have the experience and the vision to get us out of this mess," Romney told several hundred flag-waving supporters gathered on a pasture of picturesque Scamman Farm in the small town of Stratham.
Romney has focused recently on urban events or fundraisers as he gears up for what is certain to be a monumentally expensive White House race, and his shift to a week of engaging with small-town America is seen as a new tactic of retail politics less than five months from the election.
"For so many Americans, the distance between their town and the city of Washington has never seemed so far," Romney said.
"The federal establishment has never seemed so hostile or remote, so disconnected from economic reality and yet so willing to use restrictions and regulations, taxes and fines, commissions and czars to direct our daily lives."
Romney went down the list of points he normally hits on the stump: the need for lower taxes and smaller government, fewer restrictions on energy firms and small business and a repeal of the president's landmark health care reform law.
And he sought to connect with America's struggling middle class, many of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.
"I think it's nice he gets out to see some of us regular folks, and not just the well-off donors and supporters in the big cities," Michael King, a retired businessman now receiving Social Security benefits, told AFP as a plane with the message "Romney every millionaire counts tour" circled overhead.
"I'm a conservative and I feel that our country is way off base on the type of spending we're doing," the 63-year-old Vietnam War veteran added.
Romney's wife Ann encapsulated the sentiment when introducing her husband, telling the crowd that in the months of crisscrossing the nation, the Romneys began to get "a sense that something has gone wrong."
"People feel like the American dream is sifting through their fingers," she said.
The Romney campaign is describing the tour's six states as "some of the key battlegrounds of this election."
Senior campaign strategist Russell Schriefer noted to reporters that the states were won by Obama in 2008, "so we're certainly campaigning on their turf."
Scamman Farm is clearly friendly Romney territory. He launched his presidential bid last year from the sprawling property, owned by former New Hampshire house speaker Doug Scamman.
But Romney insisted the backroads tour "will take us along what I call the backbone of America," where he would meet the men and women who shape the country.
Appearing with Romney was US Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who has been mentioned as a vice presidential prospect.
"If you believe we are on the wrong road, I have the man for you, the man who can turn this country around, who will be a strong, courageous leader," she said in introducing Romney.
He headed next to the town of Milford, where he and Ann Romney served ice cream to supporters and he was joined by former Massachusetts governor Tim Pawlenty, who is generating VP buzz.
Pawlenty lit into Obama, saying his "teleprompter speeches" do nothing to improve the economy.
"We've had enough of him flapping his jaw," he told a crowd gathered in the town square before Romney spoke.
"We need somebody who's actually going to do the job and gets results, and that's Mitt Romney."
On Thursday, Obama said he and Romney presented Americans with a clear choice -- between his program, which he says favors the middle class and would invest in the future, and what he calls Romney's "top down" economics favoring the rich.
On Saturday, the Romney tour shifts to Pennsylvania and then moves Sunday to Ohio, where the Republican candidate will make an appearance with US House Speaker John Boehner.