White House hopeful Mitt Romney spent Saturday courting small-town Americans and pushing his jobs agenda, but a botched campaign stop showed it isn't always easy connecting with everyday voters.

After laying out the case for a Romney presidency at a factory in northeastern Pennsylvania, the Republican flagbearer headed to a Wawa gas station in Quakertown for a brief chance to meet locals and travelers as part of his six-state bus tour through the US industrial heartland.

It wasn't to be -- or at least not as the campaign had planned. An hour ahead of Romney's scheduled arrival, prominent Democrat Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, showed up to lead anti-Romney protests.

A local news report said between 150 and 250 anti-Romney protesters were there, substantially outnumbering the candidate's supporters about half an hour before Romney's scheduled 12:40 arrival.

And so the campaign improvised, shuttling him to another Wawa gas station about three miles (five kilometers) away for a stop last barely 10 minutes.

Romney stepped off his bus and surprised some people clearly not expecting to see him. He walked into the food mart to order a meatball hoagie sandwich, and tried to use humor to downplay the incident.

"I understand I had a surrogate over there already, so we decided to pick a different place," Romney said in reference to Rendell, a supporter of President Barack Obama but who nonetheless recently made comments critical of the incumbent.

After Obama attacked Romney's record at private equity firm Bain Capital, Rendell joined other high-profile Democrats in saying such criticism of American free enterprise was misguided.

The gas station incident, already mockingly being referred to as "Wawagate," served to highlight the hyper-competitive nature of the Obama-Romney race as the two jockey for position four and a half months ahead of November's election.

The candidates have been chasing each other across key battleground states like Ohio, where they each gave economic speeches within an hour of one another, but the tactic is not thought to have forced the abandonment of a campaign event until now.

Romney began the day in the Pennsylvania town of Weatherly, where he vowed to spur dramatic US business growth and provide far more jobs than his rival.

US unemployment crept up last month to 8.2 percent, and Romney has used the worrying data as a club to bludgeon the Obama administration over its policies to turn around the sluggish economy.

"Job one in this country is to create jobs for the American people, and I will," Romney told more than 500 supporters at an alloy factory.

Several regions in the states he's visiting -- including New Hampshire, Ohio and Wisconsin -- have been hard-hit in recent years, with a hollowing out of manufacturing and other jobs that was only made worse by the 2008 recession.

Romney, the multimillionaire ex-governor of Massachusetts, has long called for lower taxes on businesses, particularly small to medium enterprises that form the majority of US companies, less regulations and a repeal of Obama's signature health care reform law.

He argues that such steps would bring stability to employers and generate a wave of new hires, creating a knock-on effect that could bring economic gains to millions of struggling working-class Americans.

"Not only will more homes have paychecks coming into them but also there will be more competition for workers, and therefore wages will go up."

Romney enlisted former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who has been an anti-Obama attack dog of sorts for Romney, to drive home the message that the president lacks the economic chops to create jobs and that three-plus years of Obama's economic plans have been a failure.

Pawlenty told the crowd at Weatherly Casting & Machine Co. that he met a child in the state of Iowa who succinctly laid out how low taxes lead to more disposable income, and to more purchases that increase business, in turn generating more hires.

"We shouldn't have to have a 10-year-old boy in Iowa know more about the economy than the president of the United States," Pawlenty said.

Romney and many top Republicans laid into Obama for his recent comment that the US private sector was "doing fine," and argued the comments showed the president was in over his head.

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