On July 4, Mitt Romney marched through Wolfeboro, N.H., and shook hands as children waved miniature American flags. Officially, Romney was on vacation, and the parade was a brief break from his family’s adventures on nearby Lake Winnipesaukee, where they’ve long had a summer home.
But it wasn’t all fireworks and apple pie. Romney’s appearance also served a political purpose. New Hampshire — the northern neighbor of Massachusetts, the state Romney once governed — is a small but critical battleground, and Romney is eager to secure the state’s four electoral votes.
Four years ago, President Obama easily won the Granite State, but after major Republican gains in 2010, Romney’s campaign is optimistic about its chances in New England’s flinty, independent neighborhood. Over the past few months, they have opened multiple offices and call centers across the state.
“This is a state that can swing dramatically,” says Ryan Williams, a Romney adviser and a former aide to New Hampshire governor John Sununu. “We think it’s going to be close and that we can win here, especially since the governor has been competing in the primary for a number of years.”
Romney’s participation in the past two New Hampshire primary elections has given him a large, sprawling base of support and a network of top-flight political operatives, such as Jim Merill. Twelve years ago, Merrill managed George W. Bush’s successful New Hampshire general-election campaign.
Tom Rath, a Romney adviser and a former New Hampshire attorney general, thinks Romney’s fiscal conservatism and suburban appeal will play as well this year as it did for Bush more than a decade ago. “Romney’s temperament and views make him the kind of Republican who wins here,” Rath says.
Bush’s 2000 victory, however, was narrow, as was Democrat John Kerry’s New Hampshire win in 2004. Veteran Republican consultants expect the Obama–Romney race to resemble those two tight contests more than Obama’s 2008 sweep, when the Illinois Democrat won all ten counties.
“Both parties are taking this state seriously,” says Dave Carney, a New Hampshire–based Republican strategist. “But I think Romney may have an edge. If you watched him on the rope line at the Wolfeboro parade, it was obvious that many people know him on a first-name basis, and that’s invaluable.”
Carney says Romney’s close relationship with New Hampshire is similar to George H. W. Bush’s decade-long wooing of New Hampshire voters from 1978 to 1988, between the 1980 and 1988 primary seasons. As with Romney, Bush lived in the region and New Hampshire was key to his presidential hopes.
In the polls, Romney has recently closed the gap. The latest New Hampshire poll, published by WMUR, shows Obama leading Romney, 49 percent to 45 percent; but back in WMUR’s April poll, the president led Romney by nine percentage points. Obama’s approval rating in the poll was below 50 percent, a sign of vulnerability.
Romney’s competitive standing does not surprise Democrats, who have been organizing in New Hampshire for more than a year, and the Obama campaign has opened 14 field offices. Vice President Joe Biden has made high-profile visits, and President Obama stopped by Durham, N.H., in late June.
But much has changed since Obama last painted New Hampshire blue. Two years ago, New Hampshire Republicans won a Senate seat, both of the state’s two congressional seats, record majorities in the state house and state senate, and complete control of the state’s influential executive council.
Coupled with Romney’s ground game, the Republican political machine is strong and ready to kick into gear. Romney’s team is focused on generating big Republican turnout in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties, two well-populated areas in the south, and traditional GOP pockets near the coast.
“Governor Romney started his campaign in Stratham, N.H., in June 2011, and he just came back here for his bus tour and vacation,” Williams says. “Most voters live south of Concord, the capital, and that’s where we are putting a lot of our effort. But you’ll also see us up north, in Carroll and Coos counties.”
As with its national strategy, Romney’s state campaign is underscoring the candidate’s economic message in its outreach and mailings. New Hampshire may have a 5.1 percent unemployment rate, Romney aides say, but it is still a state in transition, moving away from its heavy-industry past.
In the final stretch, the Romney campaign will make a hard pitch to “undeclared” voters, who are approximately 40 percent of the state’s electorate. From Bush’s 2000 win to Bill Clinton’s razor-thin victory in 1992, these voters decide elections and whether a campaign snags 270 electoral votes.
“This feels a lot like 2004, when a guy from Massachusetts was able to win 51–49,” says James Pindell, WMUR’s political director. “Romney’s not a true favorite son, but he’s insulated from many of the national attacks because people have really gotten to know his record over the past several years.”
– Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.