Is Romney Really a Lock in New Hampshire?

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Summer is fast turning to fall here in New Hampshire, where I’m reporting a story for the print magazine, and it strikes me that there’s been curiously little talk of late about this state’s traditionally all-important primary. To be fair, in the past several months the Republican presidential race has revolved around other things: Iowa, debates, new-candidate roulette, and national polls. But New Hampshire could still be supremely important–and less predictable than people seem to assume.

That supposed predictability may explain why you don’t hear so much about the Granite State. The general assumption is that Mitt Romney has New Hampshire practically in the bag. He was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, after all, and owns a summer getaway in the lake town of Wolfeboro. He’s led in the polls here since they started taking them. As a result, it’s possible that his rivals will cede the state to him. Michele Bachmann already seems to be doing just that, and some local Republicans wonder if Rick Perry might do the same, choosing instead to leapfrog down to the more hospitable southern-conservative battleground of South Carolina, where a decisive win could slow any post-New Hampshire Romney momentum.

But Mitt’s prospects here may be more fragile here than they appear from afar. Despite his advantages, Romney is drawing roughly one-third of the vote here–or just about the 31.6 percent he finished with in 2008. Romney’s rivals like to describe him as an “incumbent” for the purposes of the New Hampshire contest, and that seems fair. Last time around Mitt was still introducing himself to voters; now his name recognition is about 100 percent. But any incumbent running just over 30 percent and not increasing his numbers is hardly in a commanding position. It is true that Romney has become a sharper, stronger candidate since ’08. But it’s also true that he hasn’t yet taken many hard punches this cycle. And now he doesn’t just have the problems that hounded him four years ago–his varied flip-flops and his clunky personal touch–to contend with, but also the conservative outrage over “ObamneyCare.” It’s not clear that the state’s newspaper editorial boards, which savaged him en masse in 2008 (“a phony” who “surely must be stopped”), will be any kinder this time around.

One big question mark is whether Perry will decide to exploit that softness. The Granite State, where John McCain surged against then Texas Governor George W. Bush in 2000, might prove difficult territory for the tough-talking southerner. But the political media has declared New Hampshire a must-win state, and reasonably so. Focusing resources here that Perry could deploy in other states, like South Carolina and Nevada, is a high-risk strategy but also offers high rewards. It remains to be seen whether he’ll go for it. (Perry got off to a slow start here with an appearance before a group of local GOP elites that one attendee described to me as startlingly bad.)

The other question mark is how much damage Romney might suffer from a candidate most people have already counted out of the race: Jon Huntsman. The former Utah governor might be a non-entity in the polls, but his family has more-or-less unlimited money, and could use the new Super PAC recently formed to support Huntsman’s candidacy to fund a massive anti-Romney ad campaign should they choose. It might not be enough to win Huntsman New Hampshire, but it could be enough to bloody Romney and let Perry steal the primary, especially if Bachmann skips the state and isn’t siphoning many conservative votes.

New Hampshire is clearly Romney’s state to lose. But his grip on it may be more tenuous than people think. The press spent the summer fixated on Iowa, with its straw poll and its Bachmannia. It’s time to start zooming in on the Granite State.

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