By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, under rising pressure from rival Rick Perry, has been forced to drop his play-it-safe campaign strategy and launch a more direct appeal for support from Tea Party conservatives.
After months of staying above the Republican campaign fray and focusing his criticism on President Barack Obama, Romney threw his first subtle jab at Perry on Tuesday and changed his schedule to appear at two Tea Party-oriented events.
The moves followed the release of several opinion polls showing Perry, the Texas governor and Tea Party favorite, flying past former front-runner Romney to grab a solid lead in the 2012 Republican race to nominate a challenger to Obama.
A Quinnipiac University poll on Wednesday showed Perry, who entered the race slightly more than two weeks ago, with a 6-point lead over Romney among Republicans. Other recent polls gave Perry an even larger lead, with strong support from the most conservative voters.
Romney's misfortune seemed to produce a shift in strategy for the former Massachusetts governor, who had been laying low on the campaign trail and not directly engaging his rivals.
"Romney had to shake things up a bit, he had to start taking the shine off Perry," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "Perry is the new force in the race but Romney can't let him build up too much momentum."
The Romney campaign denied there was a new approach and said the decision to attend the two campaign events was a scheduling issue and not a result of Perry's rise in the polls.
"Governor Romney has met with Tea Party leaders across the country, he's appeared at Tea Party events before," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said.
"We're focused on running our own race, on discussing Governor Romney's record as a successful businessman who spent 25 years in the private sector," he said.
JABS AT PERRY
At a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Texas on Tuesday, however, Romney for the first time contrasted his record with that of the Texas governor, the state's longest-serving chief executive and a former state agriculture commissioner and member of the Texas House of Representatives.
"Career politicians got us into this mess, and they simply don't know how to get us out," said Romney, a former venture capitalist.
Romney, whose state healthcare initiative was a precursor of Obama's plan, has had trouble winning over some social conservatives and Tea Party fiscal conservatives suspicious of his record in liberal Massachusetts.
But his schedule changes were clearly aimed at wooing them. He said he would appear at a Tea Party bus tour event in New Hampshire on Sunday and at a South Carolina forum on Monday that he had originally turned down.
Perry will also appear at the South Carolina forum, which will be moderated by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Representative Steve King of Iowa, leading figures among social conservatives and Tea Party groups.
Freedom Works, a Tea Party-affiliated group, urged a boycott of Romney's appearance in New Hampshire. "After months of distancing himself from the Tea Party, suddenly Mitt Romney wants to be one of us," a statement on its website said.
Before Perry's entry, Romney had been an uneasy front-runner in a Republican field that had drawn complaints from some party leaders who wanted more candidates to jump in.
Perry's decision to enter the race created a splash and reshaped the field, but it is still unclear if his appeal will last. The Republican White House contenders will hold three debates in the next month, and Perry will be in the spotlight.
"Romney has to show he can compete with Perry and identify with the Tea Party now," Bonjean said. "If Perry's poll numbers stay solid for the next few months, it will be hard to shake him out of the front-runner's spot."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)