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It’s beginning again. Campaign watchers say Mitt Romney is opening the 2012 presidential primary season this weekend by traveling to New Hampshire for his first public political appearance in the state this year. Though he has not yet formally jumped into the race, Romney will deliver the keynote speech at a Carroll County Republican dinner in Bartlett.
Is 2012 Romney's Year?
Historically it seems to be Romney's year, as Republicans often give the presidential nomination to the second-place finisher from the previous election. Ronald Reagan won in 1980 after finishing second in 1976; George H. W. Bush followed in 1988; Bob Dole in 1996; John McCain in 2008 — so some say it is Romney's turn in 2012, after his second place finish to McCain.
But New Hampshire has a history of throwing the odd curve ball at front-runners. In this case, the question is whether the Granite State's political bedrock is shifting under Romney's feet.
Jack Kimball, the new chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said the party is moving to the right — and he doesn't need to look any further than himself for evidence. A relatively new face in politics, Kimball finished second in the governor's race as the Tea Party candidate before being elected chairman over an established Republican candidate.
Historically it seems to be Romney's year, as Republicans often give the presidential nomination to the second place finisher from the previous election.
"A lot of the conservative values that have been coming out — including the Tea Party, liberty groups, all the groups that you've seen, libertarian groups — have certainly dragged the party in that direction," he said. "I think it's a positive thing."
Though he is staying neutral in his new role, Kimball said that shift could make it harder for someone like Romney, who is traditionally considered to be an establishment candidate.
Romney's Challenge: The Tea Party
"I think in general, across the country, the mood and the landscape is trending away from an establishment-oriented candidate and to people who may be newer on the scene," Kimball said.
Romney is hardly new on the scene — he has been running for years, his name is always listed in the top tier of potential candidates and he is a national and New Hampshire front-runner. In a recent poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, 40 percent of likely Republican voters said they would vote for Romney.
Given all this, does Romney need to pay attention to this supposed Tea Party shift to the right? We put that question to Andrew Hemingway, executive director of the Republican Liberty Caucus, who claims thousands of members.
"Well, let's do some math," he said. "In 2008, there were just over 200,000 Republican voters in the primary. So you're going to say, OK, so let's look at 2012, we're going to see just about the same number of people, only we're going to have 10 or 12 candidates running."
Hemingway leaned forward. "So 30,000 votes wins this primary," he concluded. "I believe that to win a Republican primary right now without the Tea Party's help is going to be very, very difficult."
At just 28 years old, Hemingway is quite self-assured in this declaration. He discounted the poll showing Romney with 40 percent support, predicting that number will be Romney’s peak.
"I know what's happening on the grassroots level and there is very, very little support for Mitt Romney's president campaign," he said. And he points to one reason — "RomneyCare."
RomneyCare — it's what his opponents call the Massachusetts state health care plan, approved and pushed by Romney when he was governor.
Romney’s opponents call it the forerunner of the national health care overhaul, or "ObamaCare." Romney himself seems to be concerned about this issue.
When Boston Phoenix political reporter David Bernstein recently dove into the text of the newly released paperback version of Romney's year-old book, “No Apology," he found unmentioned revisions.
One was a pointed attack on ObamaCare, the other was what Bernstein called 'a nod to the Tea Party' in the book’s new introduction.
"It talks a lot about the importance of the founding fathers and the importance of freedom, which is very in keeping with the way that the Tea Party movement talks, and is not something that anybody had seen Mitt Romney talk about previously," Bernstein said.
It's not the first time Romney has politically shape-shifted. He tacked dramatically to the right in the 2008 campaign in a move some say cost him the nomination.
Former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath — who was with Romney then as a senior adviser — dismisses the idea that Romney needs to be concerned about the Tea Party at all.
"Take a look at the numbers for Mitt Romney amongst self-identified Tea Party members. It was like 77 to 13 favorable/unfavorable," Rath said. "That's why I say you have to be careful if somebody is a self-appointed spokesperson for the Tea Party, whether they really speak for that group of people or they're just trying to drive an agenda that they may have of themselves."
Andrew Smith, who runs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, takes it further, saying he doesn't buy the premise that the Tea Party is changing New Hampshire's political DNA.
"If you think about the Tea Party, there's largely two wings that make up the Tea Party: there's the fiscally conservative wing, or a small government wing, which by and large describes all of the Republicans in the state, and a good deal of the moderates and Democrats in the state," Smith said.
"This is a small government state, we don't have taxes, so everybody is by and large a fiscally conservative kind of Tea Party voter. But on the social conservative issues, which is where I think much of the energy that the Tea Party has comes from, we don't see that in New Hampshire. Social issues are not big deals here to most of the voters."
But Smith also warns that fiscally conservative, small government New Hampshire does not like ObamaCare.
So, he said, Romney doesn’t need to worry about the Tea Party so much as he needs convince voters that RomneyCare does not equal ObamaCare.
This program aired on March 4, 2011.
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