Romney in New Hampshire: Holding Onto a Broad but Tenuous Lead

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Jim Cole / AP

Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop at the Derry-Salem Elks Lodge 2226, Oct. 3, 2011, in Salem, N.H.

Salem, N.H.

Mitt Romney is in front-runner’s form. Romney is standing amid a crush of supporters, warming up the standing-room town hall crowd at an Elks Lodge adorned with mauve stage curtains and plenty of his royal-blue “Believe in America” placards. The book on Romney–at least the one long peddled by his opponents–is that he’s a political chameleon, a man who modulates his rhetoric to match the mood of his audience. What this criticism elides is that Romney is often really good at it, as he was Monday night in Salem.

Sans tie, his sleeves rolled up, Romney warms up by taking the crowd on an aw, shucks tour of his glittering resume: his initiation into the business world at an august consulting firm he doesn’t name, his star turn running a venture capital and private equity firm–“whatever the heck that is.” Romney has a way of hurling partisan barbs while still coming across as cool and measured. “President Obama, while he may be a nice guy, is simply in over his head,” Romney says, almost sympathetically. Then, to the delight of the crowd, he proceeds to clobber Obama for throwing Israel “under the bus,” for apologizing to the world for America’s greatness, for preferring European-style government intervention to free-market capitalism.

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Romney has adopted a Tea Party’s platform stripped of its stridency. To the applause of supporters in the Elks Lodge, he took a hard line on immigration by calling again for a border fence, a crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and, in a deft jab at his chief rival Rick Perry, an end to tuition credits for their children. He promised “very significant consequences” if factions within Pakistan’s government continue to abet local militants. On three occasions, he gave soothing answers to seniors fretting about the solvency of social safety-net programs, promising to “protect” entitlements while steering clear of Paul Ryan’s plan to voucherize Medicare, which he’s said he would sign as President.

Even as Romney edges to the right, he is betting that voters feeling burned by Obama and enlivened by the Tea Party are clamoring for a return to cool, sober conservative leadership. “We did an unusual thing” by electing Obama, he told the crowd. “We chose someone we didn’t know very well.” On the other hand, there is Romney, the former governor of an adjacent state who owns a home on the shores of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. In his second run for the presidency, Romney has made 25 campaign trips to New Hampshire, more than any rival, according to Democracy in Action. His home in the state helps, but there’s no question he has a reservoir of support and a robust operation here. Buoyed by these strengths and stellar name recognition, Romney is lapping his Republican rivals in early New Hampshire polls. In three surveys taken between August 15 and September 21, Romney led by an average of 24 points, according to RealClear Politics.”There’s a comfort level with Mitt,” says Donna Sytek, a Romney backer and a former speaker of New Hampshire’s House of Representatives.

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But even in a Romney redoubt like New Hampshire, it remains an open question whether he can convert that comfort level into votes. Rivals say Romney’s support is the inverse of Ron Paul’s: broad but not particularly deep. Plenty of Republicans, even those who support Romney, are still peering around the bend, wondering if another candidate who inspires deeper devotion will materialize. On Monday, a Fox News writer argued that if Chris Christie chose to run, it would be a “calamity” for Romney, since Christie would cannibalize the former Massachusetts governor’s support among Northeastern conservatives.

“Do I think his support is soft? Yes,” says Tom Eifler, a retired college professor from Atkinson, New Hampshire, who praised Romney’s “terrific” performance at the town hall. “Do I think he’ll win anyway? Yes.” Outside the lodge, Doreen Serpa, a retired teacher from Salem, gushed about Romney and called herself a supporter. “So far I am committed,” she says. But she allows that that could change.

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Which is why, in some ways, Romney’s challenge in New Hampshire is not to help voters like Serpa get to yes, but to convince them to stay there. As far as political problems go, it’s hardly the worst one to have. But Romney’s expectations in New Hampshire are sky-high. Having thus far opted against throwing his all into Iowa, Romney needs a rout in his backyard to cement his status in the race and fuel his sprint toward the nomination. He’s capable of delivering one — if a fickle electorate is willing to settle for solid instead of searching for something new.  “Everybody’s looking for the white knight,” says Sytek, the former House Speaker, “and I don’t think he’s coming.”