Romney Leads in New Hampshire Where Voters Can Deliver Surprises

Mitt Romney holds a commanding lead in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, more than double the support for his nearest rival, Texas congressman Ron Paul.

Romney, 64, is the preferred choice of 40 percent of likely New Hampshire primary voters in a Bloomberg News poll conducted Nov. 10-12. Paul places second at 17 percent, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is at 11 percent. All the other candidates are below 10 percent.

As the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, Romney is a familiar presence in the Granite State. He owns a vacation home on the edge of Lake Winnipesaukee and campaigned in the state during his first, unsuccessful presidential bid in 2008.

“I’ve watched his career for years,” said Lois Doughy, a 61-year-old poll respondent who lives in the northern part of the state. “You kind of have to gravitate towards who you can be comfortable with.”

New Hampshire is the focal point of Romney’s campaign strategy. If he can win Iowa and New Hampshire, it could put him on a clear path to the nomination. And if he loses Iowa, a New Hampshire victory will be his firewall.

“You just don’t have any volatility in these numbers. He’s liked and widely liked,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the New Hampshire poll. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Economic Issues Dominate

The dominance of economic issues in the race has also boosted Romney, a founder of Boston-based private equity firm Bain Capital who’s made his business background a central focus of his campaign. More than 8 out of 10 New Hampshire voters said fiscal issues such as taxes, government spending, and the economy will play an important role in their selection of a candidate. Only 13 percent named such social issues as gay marriage, abortion, and gun control as more important.

While ahead, Romney doesn’t have the race locked up. Sixty-six percent of Romney backers say they could be persuaded to support another candidate, a fluidity in support that is true for other candidates, as well. Those numbers aren’t surprising given New Hampshire’s history of delivering election night upsets.

Hart’s Upset

In an October 1983 poll by Manchester-based WMUR-TV, former Vice President Walter Mondale was favored by 44 percent of likely Democratic primary voters and Colorado Senator Gary Hart’s stood at 6 percent. On Election Night, Feb. 28, 1984, Hart defeated Mondale in New Hampshire by 10 points.

In the 2000 Republican primary, Arizona Senator John McCain came from behind to defeat George W. Bush. A WMUR/CNN poll in September 1999 gave Bush a 33 percentage point advantage over McCain. The senator won the primary in January with 49 percent support compared to 30 percent for Bush, then the governor of Texas.

The gap between Bush and McCain almost a dozen years ago mirrors that between Romney and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. today, the Bloomberg survey found.

Huntsman, 51, who is betting his candidacy on winning in New Hampshire, is trying to stage a similar primary-night upset. In September, strapped for cash and lagging in the polls, Huntsman shuttered his Florida headquarters and moved his campaign operation to the Granite State.

Huntsman Support

In the poll, Huntsman draws 7 percent support, which puts him fifth in the eight candidate primary, one point behind Herman Cain, a former businessman.

Eighteen percent of likely primary voters say they have been contacted by Huntsman’s campaign by e-mail, U.S. mail, telephone, by someone knocking on their door or have attended a candidate event. About 1 in 10 of those more clearly support him afterwards, the poll shows. That success rate ties with Cain for fourth best in the field, lagging Romney, Paul and Gingrich.

One challenge facing Huntsman -- and his rivals -- is that time is running out to make an impression on voters. Another hurdle is the campaign of Paul, who is also aiming to upset Romney and gain momentum out of New Hampshire.

Paul’s contact rate with voters is the only one that matches Romney’s, at 52 percent in New Hampshire. The rate at which his campaign is able to bring those likely voters into the fold is 22 percent, half that of Romney at 44 percent. “A lot of people aren’t giving him the press that he needs,” said Kristine Haase, 26, a customer service representative in rural New Hampshire. “There’s more people supporting him then they really know.”

Gingrich Rises

Gingrich, 68, who has spent little time campaigning in New Hampshire, is backed by 11 percent. A series of strong debate performances have helped the former Georgia congressman move up in the polls after more than a dozen of his staff in June quit following disagreements over strategy, fundraising, and the role of his wife, Callista, in the campaign.

“I think he knows what he’s talking about,” said Doughy who named Gingrich as her second choice after Romney. Still, she noted, “I don’t know what his baggage is.”

Cain, 65, who led in national polls last month, has seen his support drop in the state in wake of accusations of sexual harassment raised against him by four women. The former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive officer has support from 8 percent in the poll.

Cain Skepticism

Likely New Hampshire primary voters are more skeptical of Cain’s assertion that he has never behaved inappropriately with anyone. In New Hampshire, 47 percent of likely primary voters don’t believe Cain’s denials of sexual harassment or are unsure or skeptical of them; in Iowa, by contrast, 34 percent of likely caucus goers have drawn those same conclusions.

New Hampshire voters also reject Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, which would impose a 9 percent sales tax on a state that currently has none.

Cain’s plan is backed by 13 percent of New Hampshire’s likely primary voters, compared to 30 percent who back Romney’s call to make the Bush tax cuts permanent for all incomes and then work toward an overhaul of the code. Huntsman’s proposal to create three new individual income tax brackets, ranging from 8 percent to 23 percent, is supported by almost 1 in 4 likely primary voters.

“We don’t have no sales tax up here and that would give us one,” said Donald Bodwell, a 77 year old retired auto mechanic. “It’s completely un-doable.”

Single Digits

Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is at 1 percent and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann garners 2 percent support in the Bloomberg poll.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, 61, who’s trying to regain momentum after debate performances he said were mediocre, gets support from 3 percent of likely voters.

On the issue of immigration, more than half of the New Hampshire respondents said they would “rule out” a candidate who supported in-state college tuition rates for American born children of undocumented immigrants. Perry backed such a plan in Texas.

“I thought he was going to be the tall, good-looking Texan that came riding to the race like the Lone Ranger,” said Ronald Pilotte, 67, a retired facilities manager for the Department of State. “He fell off his horse.”

Perry’s trip was one more advantage for Romney, who has nurtured relationships with influential community leaders and given generously to local candidates in the first primary state for the last four years.

Romney Courtship

Since announcing his candidacy in Stratham, New Hampshire, on June 2, Romney has held 42 events and spent 24 days in the state, according to spokesman Ryan Williams.

That effort has helped Romney broaden his base of support in the state, winning 43 percent of self-identified Republicans and 38 percent of independent voters likely to vote in the primary. He’s also held on to most of his past supporters. Almost 7 in 10 New Hampshire primary voters who backed Romney during the last election say they plan to vote for him again.

Tracy Emerick, a 64-year-old commercial realtor, says he backed Romney in 2008 and never strayed. “He has managerial experience,” he said, “and government, in general, is out of control.”