Concord, N.H.

Iowans are supposed to be the nice ones (and they are). But two days here in New Hampshire makes me wonder if the old-style flinty Granite Staters haven’t gone Hawkeye warm and fuzzy. There was a fierce looking Ron Paul supporter who saw me coming out of the Capitol Center for the Arts after the NBC News/Facebook debate this morning and who started to bellow, “no neocon, no neocon!” But he was pleasant enough when I went over to shake his hand. (I told him, yes, I am a neocon.)

And all the New Hampshirites with whom I chatted in the theater this morning were friendly and positively hospitable—concerned that my colleagues and I were enjoying our stay in their state, solicitous about whether we’d been informed about good restaurants in which to dine. (I told them—truthfully—that Steve Hayes and I had really enjoyed our baby back ribs at the TGIF in Manchester’s Mall of New Hampshire last night.) Then the clerk at the Barnes and Noble this afternoon (also in the Mall of New Hampshire—an excellent place!) told me he disagreed with almost everything I said on Fox, but was still pleased to meet me, and was gratified I liked some of the same mystery authors he did.

Maybe New Hampshire should change its motto from Live Free or Die, to Live Free and Be Nice?

The candidates, on the other hand, do seem to be in Live Free or Die mode. They seemed more tense this morning than when I’d last seen most of them, in November at the AEI-Heritage debate in Washington. And their staffs and supporters were more on edge. This of course stands to reason, as they’ve now entered the demolition derby stage of the primary process, which some candidacies won’t survive.

One who will survive is Mitt Romney. Last night he dodged all the bullets—such as they were—pretty effortlessly. But this morning, under some pressure from Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, there may have been a minor self-inflicted wound.

Romney was explaining his decision not to seek a second term as governor in 2006. It isn’t that hard a decision to defend. All he would have to say is that he thought he might run for president, and didn’t think it appropriate to run for reelection as governor if he were going to turn around immediately to run for president. If Romney had said something like that, no one would have thought twice about it.

But instead Romney offered this: “I went to Massachusetts to make it different. I didn't go there to begin a political career, running time and time again. I—I made a difference. I put in place the things I wanted to do. I listed out the accomplishments we wanted to pursue in our administration. There were 100 things we wanted to do. Those things I pursued aggressively. Some we won. Some we didn't. Run again? That would be about me. I was trying to help get the state in best shape as I possibly could. Left the—the world of politics, went back into business.”

Really? In fact, Romney, who had run for office before—for the Senate in 1994—didn’t go “back into business” in 2007. He started running full-time for president. “Run again? That would be about me.” But he did run again—for president. Wasn’t that even more about him?

There’s quite a bit more political ambition in his past than Romney allows. Which is no big deal. Unless you try to clothe your ambition so clumsily in “pious baloney,” as Gingrich called it, that people start remarking once again on your inauthenticity.

Which even some nice New Hampshirites with whom I spoke afterward were doing.

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