Romney, Paul See Strong Turnout in Derry

by Robert Costa

Derry, N.H. — Turnout at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School has been “real steady all day,” says poll worker Beth Hunter as she leaves her shift. “There has been a pretty constant stream of people since I started this morning,” she says. “I’ve seen lots of Republicans, independents, and some Democrats, who made write-in votes.” By her count, most voters appear to be supporting either Mitt Romney or Ron Paul, and the strong support for both contenders is reflected outside, where Paul and Romney supporters line the pavement, toting colorful signs and debating as they shiver. And for the two hours I spent alongside them, chatting with folks, volunteers for Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum were nonexistent.

At this late hour, such things matter, since Derry is a must-watch town in one of New Hampshire’s key GOP counties, Rockingham, in the southern part of the state. Along with Hillsborough County, which includes Manchester, these two counties are the most populous in the state, comprising a significant portion of the Republican vote. Romney, for instance, won both Rockingham and Hillsborough in 2008, giving him a strong showing, even though he lost the rest of the state to John McCain. In every sense, this pair of counties nestled near the Massachusetts border is his base, and he needs to do well here if he hopes to fend off a surge by Huntsman or Paul in northern or western New Hampshire.

The ragtag group of Paul supporters here, almost all under age 35, dominated in terms of signs and energy. But it wasn’t a perfect operation. One young man, who would not speak to the press, “per campaign rules,” spent 30 minutes shouting about Paul’s virtues, only to be scolded by an elder Paul volunteer, who told him “that’s not going to get their attention; they’re sick and tired of calls, they’re sick and tired of all of this.” The young man, who had traveled from Philadelphia to campaign, nodded and stayed mum for the rest of the afternoon. Another Paul supporter, Ethan Paquin, a local, was optimistic about the Texan’s chances. “We’re getting good vibes,” he told me, and said he expected turnout to be high. “The weather is perfect, New Hampshire can handle this,” he said. “It’ll keep picking up.”

The contrast between the ground games for Romney and Paul was striking. Paul had more in terms of number but many, beyond Paquin and his friends, were from out of state, assigned to this location by Paul’s campaign. Romney’s backers, though fewer in number, included a former state senator and a current state representative, reflecting the former Bay State governor’s institutional GOP support in New Hampshire. That former state senator, Bob Letourneau, age 69, predicts that Romney will sweep the state due to his electability. New Hampshire voters, he says, may find many of the candidates appealing, but with President Obama in the White House, winning in November is the priority. “He’s going to win Derry by a feel-good margin,” Letourneau says. “The Paul guys, who I really respect, are a big presence, but when people walk by me, they give me a thumbs up. That’s all I need to know. The support for Governor Romney is there.”

Jim Webb, decked in a hunting cap adorned with a Romney pin, agrees. “He’s the one who can beat Obama, and that’s why he is going to win,” says Webb, a state lawmaker. “Derry is a big Republican area and I see Romney with the best team in the county, with the best team in the state.”

Arthur Jackson, a 74-year-old retiree, however, voted for Romney, due to his perceived electability, but worries whether Romney is ready for a long, drawn-out primary and general-election campaign. “He’s still got South Carolina, and all the states that are pro-Bible, pro-Christian, and they may give him a tough time. Now, the Bible is my main issue, I want a president who talks about it, but I also want to get America going. So I’m supporting Romney, and if [New Hampshire] treats him well, maybe he’ll win.”

And don’t expect Huntsman to carry Derry. The buzz around the former Utah governor is “strange,” says Jim Foley, a pharmaceutical executive. “He’s an odd duck. He kept telling us he’d run a New Hampshire campaign, and his paid staff here is from the state, but he hasn’t connected with local Republicans, he hasn’t reached out to the right people. That ‘trust’ thing he always talks about? I’m not sure that is resonating. I don’t see a surprise.”

For her part, Derry resident Rebecca Augello is miffed by the outpouring of support for Romney. She voted for Ron Paul today because she is “sick and tired of backdoor politics.” Romney, she says, “will be more of the same, and he says the same things we’ve been hearing for years. Ron Paul, well, he’s more of a person than a politician, and he’s an outsider.”

With that, Augello and her husband, Anthony, picked up a sign and joined Ron Paul’s volunteers, urging incoming voters to support “freedom.” People kept arriving, and as the sun set over the rolling hills, they huddled, hopeful.