"Things aren't better now than they were four or five years ago," Romney said. "You can't blame George Bush anymore. President Obama is going to have to take responsibility."
McPhail, 43, of Windham, who owns a small roofing business, had turned around his truck and rushed into Benson Lumber & Hardware to shake Romney's hand.
"I think he's a brilliant businessman and a great leader, the only one who understands the economy," McPhail said. "That's what the country needs."
For two hours, Romney and six rivals participated in a debate, televised nationally on CNN, that seemed to change little about the 2012 race. He's still the front-runner, but somebody will emerge as his chief rival, and Romney acknowledged that he was bound to face criticism over his state health-care plan - similar to Obama's national overhaul in requiring individuals to buy insurance - as the race intensified.
None of the contestants on the stage at St. Anselm College brought it up, so their positions sounded indistinguishable: that the president's plan needs to be repealed and replaced with state and market-based solutions. Romney said Tuesday that he should be judged on his proposed repeal of the federal law, not on the Massachusetts plan.
The race ahead
"We all agree that Obamacare is the wrong direction for the nation," Romney told reporters. "And if people want to look at what's happening in Massachusetts, why, I'm not running for governor of Massachusetts. I'm running for president of the United States."
He said, "I don't think there are any questions that will be put to rest until somebody's won."
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, favored by the tea party movement, used the debate to announce her presidential campaign. That set her on a collision course with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in neighboring Iowa, where they will compete for the votes of the conservative evangelical voters who dominate the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses.
And the race will change further next Tuesday, when former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, returned from a stint as Obama's China envoy, plans to announce his candidacy in New Jersey's Liberty State Park, where Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 campaign.
Romney, unlike his rivals, has not had to struggle to build up his name identification. He ran in 2008, losing to John McCain, and has spent the intervening years campaigning for other Republicans around the nation, building alliances and a formidable fund-raising network.
Everywhere he went Tuesday, Romney, 64, asked people questions about their economic circumstances and stressed his private-sector business experience. He plopped into a booth at Mary Ann's Diner in Derry and told the couple sitting there: "I didn't spend my life in politics. I spent my life in the real world. I was only in politics four years as governor - and I didn't inhale."
In the parking lot outside the hardware store, Romney ran into Mary Ellen Zarra, who talked of her family's pain since her husband was laid off three years ago and had to move to Saudi Arabia to find work as an engineer.
"This is supposed to be a free country where family is very important, and we split up because there's no work over here," said Zarra, 51, of Derry. "There's no middle class anymore."
Romney promised he would work to make sure that her husband - and millions of other unemployed - found work here at home.
Zarra said she found Romney sincere. "It's hard to believe everything you hear," she said. "They all promise a lot."
Romney was almost giddy on his morning rounds in southern New Hampshire, a contrast to his usual button-down demeanor. But there were awkward moments.
After visiting diners at Blake's Restaurant in Manchester, Romney tried out a joke on the owner, who laughed politely.
"I saw the young man over there with eggs Benedict, with hollandaise sauce with the eggs there," Romney said. "And I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce in hubcaps. Because there's no place like chrome for the holidays."
Romney was returning to Benson's Lumber & Hardware, which he visited in the 2008 campaign. "I will probably be back in four years," he said to owner Brad Benson, "only it will be a larger group, and I'll have Secret service."
At Mary Ann's, Romney posed for a picture in front of the jukebox with some waitresses who were wearing poodle skirts. Just before the shot, he jumped a few steps forward, looking startled. "Oh, my goodness!" It seemed as if one of the women had goosed him.
Asked about it later, Romney said that nobody had touched him, that he was just making a joke about an incident during his 2008 campaign when somebody at a fund-raiser had grabbed a fistful of his posterior.
"I was just teasing the girls," Romney told reporters, and several of the servers concurred. "It was funny."
Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718
Read his blog, "The Big Tent,"