Mitt Romney is counting on New Hampshire voters to resist their traditional contrarian practice of upsetting presidential front-runners and deliver him a victory so resounding that he’s set on the path to the Republican nomination.
Romney, who has held commanding leads in most statewide opinion polls during the almost three years he has been campaigning there, is looking to reinforce his claim to the party’s mantle after barely winning the Iowa caucuses. Anything less than a victory in New Hampshire on Jan. 10 would hurt his chances even as it confirms the state’s reputation for keeping the candidates and the rest of the nation guessing.
New Hampshire voters have “a long history of sending a message and jerking the front-runner around,” said Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover.
Romney’s margin in Iowa, the first contest of the 2012 presidential nominations, was just eight votes over former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, according to the state party chairman, Matt Strawn. Texas Representative Ron Paul ran a close third.
A Suffolk University/7NEWS tracking poll of likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters conducted Jan. 1-2 found Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, maintaining a significant advantage over his rivals, with backing from 43 percent. Paul was next with 16 percent, followed by former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., with 10 percent; former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with 9 percent; and Santorum, with 5 percent.
“Romney’s support here is very solid,” said Fergus Cullen, a political consultant and former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “There’s just been no indication at all that this is a campaign on the verge of collapse.”
Still, the state is known for punishing candidates who expect to win, and Romney, 64, decided to spend two of the six days left before New Hampshire voters go to the polls campaigning in South Carolina, which holds its primary on Jan. 21.
That “strikes me as someone who might be a little too confident,” said Andrew Smith, a pollster who directs the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
High-flying presidential candidates who have fallen victim to the state’s upset tradition include Democrat Walter Mondale, who lost by 10 points to Gary Hart in 1984; Republican Bob Dole of Kansas, defeated by populist Pat Buchanan in 1996, and George W. Bush, beaten in the Republican primary by Arizona Senator John McCain in 2000.
Huntsman as ‘Underdog’
Huntsman, a former Obama administration ambassador to China who has campaigned almost exclusively in New Hampshire, appealed to factory workers yesterday to stick with that record of dashing front-runners’ hopes.
“All I want you to remember is that Huntsman guy, he’s the underdog,” he told a couple of dozen workers at the Tidland Corp. machine tool factory in Keene. “New Hampshire loves underdogs,” he said, adding, “We need your help and we need your support.”
The volatility of the Republican primary contest over the months -- in which virtually all Romney’s rivals have enjoyed a short-lived surge -- makes it less likely New Hampshire will defy expectations, said Cullen, who isn’t affiliated with a campaign. There is no one alternative who has the profile, organization or breadth of support to blindside Romney, he said.
Smith, the pollster, said New Hampshire’s penchant for upsets hasn’t usually reared its head unless “you’ve had a second-place candidate who either has strong momentum from a win in Iowa, or because they had a really strong organization and campaign in New Hampshire.” Romney isn’t likely “to make many mistakes over the next week that would cause any of the other candidates to be able to jump out and catch him.”
Pat Griffin, a veteran Republican strategist who is also neutral in the race, said the party’s voters are so motivated this year to oust President Barack Obama that they’re unlikely to gravitate toward someone like Paul, whose support is mostly among non-Republican voters, or Santorum, who is more socially conservative than the typical New Hampshire Republican.
“Romney is a franchise candidate, and if the Republican Party is the party of the person whose turn it is, then I guess I would say at this particular moment it’s Mitt Romney’s turn,” Griffin said.
Santorum focused heavily in New Hampshire during the first half of last year, then spent little time there in recent months as he turned his attention to Iowa, where activists who favor his pro-family message hold greater sway in the caucus process.
“Does a guy like Rick Santorum, who is very socially conservative, play in New Hampshire? I don’t think he will, and I also don’t think he’s ready,” Griffin said.
And Gingrich, who surged in public opinion polls in New Hampshire and the nation last month, has fallen behind and spent limited time in the New England state in recent weeks.
Fowler said Paul, who speaks to the sentiments captured in the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto, has found traction in his message about ending U.S. involvement in overseas military missions.
“This is a fiscally conservative but socially moderate state, and it’s a state that is not very keen on foreign policy adventures,” Fowler said. “Paul’s arguments about avoiding foreign adventures are resonating here.”
Huntsman, for his part, is arguing that his intense focus on retail politicking in New Hampshire -- he held his 150th event in the state last night in Peterborough -- should be rewarded.
“We’re doing it the way it’s supposed to be done,” he said. “We’re here on the ground winning votes through handshakes.”
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