Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is shifting into a higher gear.
The former Massachusetts governor, who leads national and state polls in the race for the GOP nomination, has spent much of the year laying low, limiting his public appearances and rarely weighing in on the national debate.
That started changing Monday as Romney visited New Hampshire just as the most important week yet in the Republican race got under way. A nationally televised debate was set for Thursday, two days ahead of a test vote by Iowa Republicans and an expected announcement by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is likely to enter the race.
In a slate of New Hampshire appearances, Romney came across as a candidate who no longer is content to run out the clock as his lesser-known opponents fight for money and momentum.
His schedule for the day _ his first visit to New Hampshire in three weeks _ suggested a busier campaign: He held three voter forums and two sessions with reporters.
Romney also made repeated statements about the nation's credit troubles and aggressively went after President Barack Obama, blaming him in the wake of the downgrade in the nation's credit rating for "failed leadership."
"Stop attacking, take responsibility and lead," Romney said of Obama, while touting his own experience in Massachusetts. "We had a credit upgrade as opposed to what you're seeing right now, which is a credit downgrade."
The candidate's engagement in the issue of the day was notable, given that members of his own party criticized him for playing a passive role in the weekslong debate about the nation's debt ceiling.
Still, the more aggressive Romney would only go so far. When pressed, he declined to say what he would have done differently to bring Washington's divided government together.
Aides acknowledged the beginning of a new phase of more aggressive campaigning for the presumed front-runner.
He's scheduled to hold seven town halls and forums this month in New Hampshire alone, with a busier schedule expected through September that includes Iowa and Florida stops. He spent much of the first part of the year focused on fundraising at private events, though he did appear in public every so often. He spent much of last week vacationing with family on Lake Winnipesaukee in central New Hampshire.
"We are hitting all of our financial goals. And we are making solid political progress," said top strategist Eric Fehrnstrom, rejecting the notion that Romney hasn't been busy. "There is a new phase. But it applies to all the candidates, and that applies to the ramp up into the fall."
Romney's ramp-up, however, comes as Perry moves closer to launching a presidential bid that is expected to challenge the former Massachusetts governor's place atop the field. Perry is scheduled to visit New Hampshire on Saturday after a visit to South Carolina _ the same day most of his would-be rivals compete in an important test vote in Iowa.
Some Republicans, who gathered last week in Tampa, Fla., at a Republican National Committee meeting, said Romney's early, lay-low strategy may have given Perry an opening.
"Sometimes you look over your shoulder and it's too late. Somebody's really speeding on you, they've got your draft, and they're about to swing around you. That could well be happening," said former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez. "I think if Perry gets in, he's going to be in Romney's draft, at least at the beginning."
On Monday, some New Hampshire voters said Romney's recent absence was hard to miss.
Kirk Leoni, a board member for the Concord Chamber of Commerce, noticed Romney's recent silence _ "particularly in the most recent debate over the debt ceiling and how quiet he was."
Rosemary Heard, also a board member for the Concord Chamber, expressed optimism that New Hampshire will hear more from Romney from now on, saying: "The current economic woes are going to demand he's more aggressive."