Everything seems to be going Mitt Romney’s way. The former Massachusetts governor is leading in most polls just eight weeks before the actual Republican presidential primary voting begins. But even in New Hampshire, a state central to Romney’s strategy, he could be vulnerable.
On paper, Romney is doing everything right. Lesson No. 1 from his failed campaign four years ago: he’s being more strategic about where he spends his time nationwide. And he’s zeroing in on New Hampshire to propel him to the nomination.
And in New Hampshire, former state Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen is noticing that Romney is making strategic decisions about his appearances.
“Romney has done much less grassroots campaigning here this cycle than he did last time, but I think he’s made much better use of his time,” Cullen said.
In Exeter, one of Romney’s advance guys was checking microphones at the town hall. Romney has just four advance people, and that’s lesson No. 2: he’s running a leaner campaign than he did four years ago. He’s making do with just one floor of the entire building he rented for his headquarters four years ago.
An adviser says the pared-down campaign is helping with another lesson: that it’s important to have money left over late in the race.
This leaner campaign has been noticed by one of Romney’s leading supporters in Rochester, Packy Campbell. He thinks Romney’s frugality also sends a message.
“Guess what? My wife’s got a thermostat on 60. I woke up, it was 58 degrees,” Campbell said. “And she’s like, ‘Well, it’s not that cold out yet.’ This is the Yankee, this is the live-free-or-die New Hampshire. You put on another sweater. And guess what? Mitt Romney understands that.”
One night a week, Campbell spends an hour and a half making phone calls to people he hopes will endorse Romney.
“Really, a lot of people, what I think is winning them over to Romney is the fact that Romney can win,” he said.
Campbell believes in Romney for deeper reasons. Like most people who know Romney personally, he refutes the public perception of him as a changeling. He cites Romney’s two years of Mormon missionary service in France.
“People miss that he took two years out of his life to live his faith,” Campbell said. “That just shows you that this guy is committed to his principles. He has a set of principles that are private and public. They do not change. That gives you better leadership.”
But with all that Romney has going for him, he seems to have a fundamental flaw: he still has a hard time connecting with voters. In his speech in Exeter, he promises to cut government jobs.
That prompts Tyler Harden, a sophomore at Philips Exeter Academy, to squeeze his way through the crowd at the end of the speech. He tells Romney his mom was a contractor for the federal government.
“My mother recently lost her job because of blind federal cutting, and I hope that we can reach an agreement…”
“I haven’t seen a lot of blind federal cutting. Actually, during the Obama years, federal employment has increased by 135,000 employees,” Romney said. “That’s gotta end.”
“My family hasn’t felt that,” Harden said.
“I’m gonna cut spending and employment and get the economy going. The best way to help bring jobs in this country is to get our economy going. The president has been in three years and three years we’ve seen higher unemployment. We’ve seen median income come down. I want to get the economy going and get good people good jobs and higher incomes. Thanks.”
Romney moves on into the crowd, leaving one dissatisfied teenager in his wake.
“He didn’t really address my concerns,” Harden said.
It’s scenes like this that have analysts wondering whether Romney can win this thing. He leads in the New Hampshire polls with as much as 41 percent of the vote. But most voters have yet to make up their minds.
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala says Romney’s support is wide, “but we don’t know how deep it is, and they may not know how deep it is, because it has not been tested, and Howard Dean in 2003 had a big lead in New Hampshire. Is Mitt Romney like Howard Dean in the sense that what we saw with Howard Dean in the polls is that this large lead melted every day for weeks? Will that happen to Mitt Romney? That’s gotta be the chief worry.”
Solid Republican support is key, Scala says, and that’s a problem if Romney is attracting voters like Maitree Banerjee.
She’s is already thinking about the general election. She voted for President Obama, but thinks Romney is going to be the Republican nominee. She wants someone who can turn the economy around. But even as she’s pointing out why she could vote for Romney, she reveals why so many Republican voters don’t trust him.
“He’s flip-flopped so much that I believe that he’s truly a liberal on social policy, so I’m giving him a chance,” Banerjee said. “He has to, I guess, to get the nomination say whatever they need to hear. Hopefully, he’ll govern a little more centrist.”
But the fear that he is a centrist is exactly what’s driving away hardcore Republican voters like Sue Delemus. She’s checking out Rick Santorum at a Tea Party meeting in Rochester.
“I know for sure I’m not voting for Romney,” she said.
Romney has been lucky thus far. Voters who don’t like him are currently divided among several other candidates. But if conservatives like Delemus ban together and rally around one other candidate, Romney will be in trouble.