With just five weeks to go to the New Hampshire primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney still holds a commanding lead in that state. But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is catching up. Over the past few months, we’ve been following the voters in Rochester and Mont Vernon as the the Jan. 10 primary approaches.
MONT VERNON, N.H. — Every year, Mont Vernon residents come to town hall for the lighting of the tree. Children run with glee, greeting Santa, who walks among them ringing a bell.
Next to the town hall, at the fire station, Christmas trees are lined up for sale.
Julie Harvey has found a tree to take home, just across the street. Like most people here this night, she’s been following the presidential race closely.
“The Republican candidate’s probably going to be Romney, right?” she asks her mother-in-law, Suk Harvey. “Do you think there’s going to be anybody but Romney to vote for?”
“Newt Gingrich is coming up right now,” Suk Harvey replies.
“Ron Paul’s getting a lot of attention lately, too,” Julie Harvey points out.
“It may come down to a dog race the last 10 days of the New Hampshire primary.”
Mont Vernon deputy fire chief
Polls released since the last week in November do give Romney a 10- to 27-point lead over Gingrich in New Hampshire, with Texas Rep. Ron Paul a close third.
Suk Harvey, who owns her own IT service business, thinks the race is looking good for Romney, thanks in part to the fact that people here know him.
“I think New Hampshire, Romney going to win,” Suk Harvey, an immigrant from Korea, says in her halting English. “I have feeling. I saw the lot of signs. Of course, Romney is right next door.”
Julie Harvey, an independent voter, is leaning toward Romney herself.
“Very important to me is personal life,” she says. “He doesn’t have a personality, but yet I think he would do a good job. Also I’m looking for who can win the general election.”
But like most of the people I talk to, Deputy Fire Chief Sean Mamone doesn’t think anyone has this race locked up.
“It may come down to a dog race the last 10 days of the New Hampshire primary,” Mamone says.
Mamone is considering supporting Gingrich or former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, now fourth in the polls and rising slowly.
“It’s probably going to be a last-minute decision,” Mamone says.
Many New Hampshire primary voters wait until the last day to commit to a candidate.
Over by the tree about to be lighted, people are gathering around Carl Zahn, the master of ceremonies.
“I love Mont Vernon,” Zahn announces to the crowd. “It is a town thats beauty and simplicity has always and still remains worthy of Norman Rockwell’s brush.”
In this quintessential New England village, it’s clear that after four years of working New Hampshire, Romney still doesn’t have the primary sewn up.
“It’s just a wide-open primary,” says Jack Esposito, the chairman of Mont Vernon’s Board of Selectmen. Esposito says he hasn’t figured out whom he’s going support yet, but he is being wooed.
“Oh, they call quite a bit, yeah,” Esposito says. “Newt Gingrich has called us and Perry has called.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has faded to the bottom of the polls.
“I like that one!” exclaims Chris Aspenwall as she picks a tree. But it’s way too early for the Republican voter to pick a candidate.
“I totally am undecided right now,” Esposito says. “I have no idea. There’s too much up and down right now.”
The crowd around the town tree starts the countdown, and the lights come on.
The countdown to the primary, now at five weeks, doesn’t have nearly the same clear outcome.