What does it take to win the New Hampshire primary? Depends on whom you ask. “You have to be a straight shooter,” says Judd Gregg, the former senator and governor, and Mitt Romney supporter. “You can’t be superficial.”
“You want to be somewhat of an underdog,” Jon Huntsman tells me in the lobby of his hotel in Manchester—but that’s just the sort of thing you expect an underdog to say.
Ed Pare, a former manufacturing engineer living in Manchester who’s come to see Ron Paul, says he’s looking for a candidate to just come out and say it: “Obama’s a Marxist.”
Despite a shortage of straight-shooting, truth-telling underdogs in the race, the state’s “first in the nation” primary on January 10 hardly looks up for grabs. It’s the week before Christmas, and the RealClearPolitics New Hampshire poll average shows Romney maintaining a steady lead at 34 percent; Newt Gingrich is at 21 percent; Paul and Huntsman round out the field at 17 and 12. Michele Bachmann and the Ricks, Perry and Santorum, are afterthoughts.
The consensus here is that New Hampshire is Romney’s to lose. And if road signage is any indication, he sealed his victory somewhere between Nashua and Manchester on the Daniel Webster Highway. “[Romney] has essentially done everything right,” says Michael Dennehy, a New Hampshire political veteran who worked for John McCain in 1999-2000 and 2007-2008. “He’s come to New Hampshire when he’s needed to.”
Romney’s operation is considered the hardest working in New Hampshire, and it is by far the most professional. He’s kicking off a three-day bus tour with a speech at the Bedford town hall, and a dozen Romney staffers are running around the second floor, wearing headset microphones and looking very busy. With only five days before Christmas, they’ve successfully filled the hall with more than 100 locals. A wall of reporters lines the back corners, and major media outlets have wheeled out their big guns: Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Chuck Todd of MSNBC, Mark Halperin of Time. The fire marshal is here, too, actually enforcing the room’s capacity. We’re told before the main event that in case of an emergency, we should try to evacuate, “If you can.”
Luckily, there’s no cause for alarm, as Romney delivers what could be his January 10 victory speech: “If I am president I will wake up every day and remind Americans that not only must we do better but also that we can do better! I believe in America!” (The exclamation marks are in the official transcript.) Like any self-respecting frontrunner, Romney focuses on the top dog, Barack Obama, and not on his primary opponents.
Gingrich is almost nowhere to be seen in New Hampshire. But there’s an understanding he has to focus on the Iowa caucuses, now two weeks away. He’s been struggling there lately, under a barrage of negative television ads from Paul and Romney. Additionally, Gingrich’s lucrative relationship with Freddie Mac has heightened concerns about his conservative credentials. “I’m becoming a little Newt-disenchanted,” says Dan Ostrouch of Sandown. Baruch Broderson of Nashua calls Gingrich the “felon in waiting.”
“Nobody’s written off,” says Sharon Stewart of Rochester. “Well, maybe Gingrich is written off.”
“I think undecided voters in New Hampshire will be watching Iowa very carefully,” says Bruce Keough, another GOP politico in the state and Romney’s 2008 New Hampshire campaign chairman. Keough, who isn’t aligned with Romney this time around, says if Gingrich is still standing after Iowa, conservatives in New Hampshire will probably rally around the man they’ll consider their alternative to Romney.
Meanwhile, Huntsman, who hopes to displace Gingrich as the not-Romney, just can’t seem to connect. At each town hall meeting, Huntsman announces the latest tally of events—126! 127! 128!—he’s held around the state. He touts the fact that a recent Suffolk University poll moved him up to third place in the state, ahead of Paul. But three subsequent polls from other firms, including Rasmussen Reports, place Huntsman in fourth. With a conservative record as Utah’s governor, a tax plan endorsed by the editors of the Wall Street Journal, and a moderate demeanor that supposedly appeals to New England Republicans, Huntsman nonetheless sounds a bit desperate when he pleads, “I just want your vote. That’s all I want.”
Perhaps he spends too much time telling voters what he won’t do. “I want you to know that I’m not going to pander,” he tells a crowd of 40 in Rochester. “I’m not going to contort myself into a pretzel. I’m not going to sign those silly pledges like everybody on the debate stage has done. I’m just not going to do that.”
No pandering? Huntsman tells New Hampshire voters that they are in a “unique position” to “change history.” At a small gathering in Plaistow, Mary Kaye Huntsman sashays in wearing a New England Patriots football jersey over her blouse. “My wife does not pander,” Huntsman winks, letting the folks know he’s in on the joke. There’s a ruffle of laughter, but those who might be most swayed by the jersey are at home, watching the final minutes of New England’s victory over Denver.
Huntsman says Republicans have balked at the fact that Obama appointed him ambassador to China. “I was raised, I guess, in a different era, where you serve your country first,” Huntsman tells me. “[I understand] now full well that there were many who, when they saw me in the race, they glossed over me. They said, ‘He crossed a partisan line, that’s unacceptable. And he served in China, and that’s totally unacceptable.’ I mean, come on, please.”
Back in Bedford, Romney closes his speech. “In this election, let’s fight for the America we love,” he says. “Because we believe in America.” The town hall erupts into applause as Kid Rock’s country-rock anthem (and Romney campaign theme song) “Born Free” blasts from the speakers. Clad in a blazer, an Oxford shirt, and a pair of blue jeans, the former Massachusetts governor steps off the stage. A mob of voters and television cameras descend upon the candidate, all trying to see a man who could actually be the next president of the United States.
If you’re Mitt Romney, Fortress New Hampshire looks pretty secure. Of course, that’s how fortresses always look before the battle.
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.