MERRIMACK, N.H. - Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney yesterday made his first campaign appearance in the Granite State since he announced he is running for president. Romney used a solar energy manufacturing plant to frame his message: He wants America to be energy self-sufficient within 20 or 30 years so it can stop buying foreign oil.
"It doesn't make sense to send hundreds of billions a year to countries that don't like us," he said.
In the coming weeks, he will "lay out a full energy program," with incentives for companies working on alternative energy sources - including liquified coal, nuclear, solar and wind power. Romney said no one is sure how long it will take to get to the point where the United States produces as much energy as it uses. Experts have suggested 20 or 30 years, but he anticipates incentives will foster technological breakthroughs that can speed up the schedule.
Romney made the remarks during a visit to GT Solar Inc. in Merrimack yesterday. The company, which has been a frequent stop for candidates in past New Hampshire primaries, is an international leader in manufacturing solar power panels and equipment, and has customers in Japan, China, India, Korea, Taiwan, India, the Middle East and Africa.
Romney said he came to the plant with questions about the long-term impact of solar power, but was pleased to find out the cost is dropping and affordable solar energy could be available in the United States in six to eight years. He also said he was encouraged to hear much of the firm's business comes from overseas. He suggested U.S. policy-makers take note of the fact that Japan, China and Korea are investing in solar power.
"You're doing spectacularly well," Romney told company executives and employees. "You're helping to change the world."
Michelle Rancourt of Nashua, a GT Solar employee, said she has seen numerous presidential candidates on tours of the plant.
"I'd have to say it's a pretty frequent stop," she said.
Glenn Douglas of Londonderry, an employee of GT Solar, said he anticipates America's dependence on foreign oil will be a major issue in the presidential election.
"Oh, 2008's going to be a big alternative-energy year," he said.
Romney also repeated his call for economic sanctions against Iran, similar to ones imposed against South Africa during apartheid, to nudge Iran away from its decision to push ahead with a nuclear program.
He drew smiles when he answered a reporter's question about the "bickering" between Democratic candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
"It's great, isn't it?" he said.
Romney said he is friends with two of his opponents in the Republican race - Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
"I'm sure we'll disagree on some issues," he said, but noted he respects both men whom he called "national heroes."