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HAMPTON, N.H. — For much of this year, Mitt Romney has laid low, seeking to reap the benefits of being the presumed front-runner in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination (strong fundraising, positive polling) without suffering the downsides (intensive media scrutiny, endless shelling from rivals).

But as Romney has finally started to campaign in earnest over the past couple of weeks, the dangers of his perceived leading status are coming into view, with a more intensive focus on his every word. And in the past few days, it has revolved around three words in particular: “Things are worse.”

During his campaign swing through this crucial state this week, Romney has been faced with repeated questions about the consistency of his commentary on President Barack Obama’s handling of the recession and the subsequent economic recovery.

To recap: On Thursday, when asked by a journalist in Pennsylvania to jibe his assertions that “things are worse” under Obama with various signs of economic improvement since the president took office, Romney replied, “I didn’t say things are worse,” adding, “What I said was the economy hasn’t turned around.” Democrats accused him of “flip-flopping” on a central assertion of his candidacy.

At a town-hall-style meeting Tuesday in his vacation town of Wolfeboro, N.H., Romney filled out his economic case against Obama, saying his early moves scared businesses out of spending money and hiring. His latest formulation on Obama and the economy raised a new question from a reporter at a briefing at the Galley Hatch restaurant here, where he had met with friendly local officials and small-business owners to discuss their economic troubles.

Given that Romney has used a present-tense formulation to say, for instance, “the recession is deeper” and the recovery slower because of Obama, the reporter asked, “Is it your view that it’s possible to be both in recession and recovery at the same time?”

“The technical term of the recession is not the one that I think the American people recognize,” Romney said, defining that as “a shrinking GDP.” Rather, he said, “I think most of the American people understand that we’re still feeling the effects of the recession”.

Advisers to Romney said they were hardly fretting. As Kevin Madden, an informal adviser and Romney’s campaign spokesman in 2008, put it, “They’re actually spending time litigating whether the economy is worse under Obama, or if it’s just bad.”