Mitt Romney entered the final day before New Hampshire’s primary election as the favorite, with rivals attacking his electability and authenticity as a conservative in an effort to emerge as his principal challenger for the Republican presidential nomination.
Yet, with the backing of 33 percent of the state’s likely voters in a tracking poll today, the former Massachusetts’ governor’s support has eroded by 10 percentage points in one week.
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich each criticized Romney to position themselves for a chance to stay in the race.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who has staked his campaign on a strong showing here, was pushing for a late surge in popularity powered by voter distaste for the sniping that has characterized the Republican contest.
“Mitt is going to win New Hampshire -- let’s not kid ourselves,” said Corey Lewandowski, a Republican activist who heads the state’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party-aligned fiscally conservative group. “The only race that matters is the race for second place, and it looks like it’s really between Rick Santorum and Dr. Paul for second place.”
The candidates participated in two nationally televised debates within 12 hours before they fanned out to New Hampshire schools restaurants, cafes and meeting halls yesterday.
With Romney favored among 33 percent of likely New Hampshire voters surveyed in a tracking poll run by the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, Massachusetts, Paul drew the support of 20 percent, Huntsman 13 percent, Gingrich 11 percent, Santorum 10 percent and Texas Governor Rick Perry 1 percent.
While Romney’s support has slid from 43 percent in Suffolk’s survey on Jan. 2, Huntsman’s support has increased from 9 percent in that day’s results.
“It’ll come down to these last couple days here,” said Brian Kelly, 57, a retired social worker from Concord who said he has not decided who to vote for. “That’s always the way I operate,” he said. “I go see them, see how they conduct themselves -- I like to watch the whole game.”
Ken Rhodes, 56, a consulting engineer from Auburn, said he felt an obligation to try to examine all the Republican candidates before making up his mind. “As part of the New Hampshire spirit, you look at everybody,” he said.
Race for No. 2
Still, with Romney maintaining an advantage over his competitors, strategists and activists agreed that the race to watch in New Hampshire was for runner-up.
“This was a bunch of cats scratching at an oak tree, and yeah, they got a couple of claw-marks on it, but the tree still stands,” Pat Griffin, a Manchester Republican strategist, said of yesterday’s televised debate, in which Romney’s rivals questioned whether Romney could defeat President Barack Obama along with his electability and conservative credentials.
“Mitt Romney is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t here, because if he wins in a fairly impressive race, it’s not going to be seen as enough compared to what people expect -- and if he loses, then he lost,” said Griffin, who is unaffiliated in the race. “The question is, does someone make news out of this by beating Ron Paul for second?”
Following the debate in Concord yesterday, Santorum also played down expectations as he left the state for an afternoon of campaigning in South Carolina for its Jan. 21 primary vote.
“We thought that South Carolina was the place where we had the best chance of winning, and New Hampshire was simply to keep the process going,” he told reporters. “We’re in a great position going to South Carolina with a lot of momentum.” He is scheduled to be back in New Hampshire campaigning today.
Even as they made their closing arguments to New Hampshire voters, the candidates were looking south.
“The South Carolina primary began today -- it was the first time that you really saw people positioning, angling to play there,” Griffin said yesterday. “The question for Santorum in New Hampshire is whether he can draw enough support so that Newt is sent south limping. There are still some minds to be made up here.”
Ron Paul’s Campaign
Paul continued to draw sharp distinctions between himself and the rest of the Republican field, reminding the public and party operatives that he has financial staying power and committed supporters.
“All the same candidates support the status quo, and they basically have been on different sides of the issues,” Paul told reporters after a town hall in Meredith. He joked that he could raise money with ease, saying his staff handling direct mail and fundraising “shouldn’t get paid any money at all, because the money comes in sometimes spontaneously.”
The same cannot be said of Gingrich, who is lagging in the polls and in campaign funds following his distant fourth-place finish in Iowa. He got a boost over the weekend from casino executive Sheldon Adelson, a longtime supporter who donated $5 million to Winning Our Future, a political action committee that has produced a web video portraying Romney as greedy, documenting hardships experienced by workers who lost their jobs after his private equity firm, Bain Capital LLC, bought their companies.
During a town hall meeting at a Mexican restaurant in Manchester yesterday, Gingrich took questions on issues ranging from immigration to religion from a crowd including Hispanic voters while protesters outside chanted and banged on the windows. Yet he already was looking toward to the first contest in the South, predicting that his strategy of branding himself as a “Reagan conservative” in opposition to Romney would work “very well” in South Carolina.
Huntsman, the Obama administration’s former U.S. ambassador to China, also hit back at Romney for criticizing his work for a Democratic White House. “Romney has a bumper sticker that says, ‘Proud of America,’” Huntsman said at the Bean Towne Coffee House and Cafe in Hampstead. “How can you be proud of America if you criticize serving the country?”
A crowd spilled out into the parking lot during the afternoon event, where Chip Moynihan, who had come from nearby Hampton said yesterday’s debate “has more people interested in taking a look at” Huntsman.
Romney’s inner circle voiced enough confidence that some began doing what few campaign associates ever do: predicting victory. “There’s really not much that can happen on Monday that can be a real problem” for Romney, said former New Hampshire Governor John E. Sununu, who is backing him. “I think Governor Romney is going to win New Hampshire.”
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