“Way to go, Mitt,” yelled one man driving his Regional Rubbish Company truck on Broadway Street in downtown Derry. “You’ve got my vote.”
Others stopped their cars for a chance to shake Romney’s hand; a woman named Mary Ellen Zarba chased the former governor down the street to plead for him to bring her husband back from overseas.
The 40 (or so) reporters trailing Romney, clamoring to document his every interaction with an actual voter, added to the sense of bigness and excitement around him.
And through it all Romney — movie star handsome and clad in dark jeans and a button down shirt — displayed a certain awkwardness in one-on-one interactions that may, ultimately, be his biggest impediment to winning the Republican nomination in 2012.
At Derry Feed and Supply, Ann Evans, a co-owner of the company, told Romney he was “great” at the debate and that “no one fazed you”. Tossed this softball, Romney responded that he and his rivals for the nomination had “aimed our barbs, if you will, at the president”. Barbs! If you will!
When the conversation slowed, Romney jumped in with his own question of the Evanses. That question? What they recommended to deal with mosquitoes.
Romney has, to his credit, grown a bit more natural on the stump since he first ran for president in 2008. And, he shines in more formal settings; at a press availability that closed out his morning in Derry, Romney easily handled reporters’ questions and stayed on his core message that President Obama had failed to turn the economy around in his first term.
(It’s also worth noting that “normal” interactions with voters while dozens of cameras and tape recorders loom inches away is not easy for any candidate — not even the most gifted glad-hander.)
But, the hand-to-hand combat of politicking in early primary and caucus states is clearly still a challenge for Romney who struggled in 2008 to translate his on-paper appeal — Republican governor of a Democratic state, successful businessman— into actual votes in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. (Despite spending millions in that trio of states, Romney didn’t win a single one in 2008.)
What Romney has in his favor this time around is that he is a well- known (and well-liked) commodity in New Hampshire. Polling reflects that fact. In a May WMUR/CNN poll of New Hampshire primary voters, Romney was a clear favorite — taking 33 percent, the only candidate to even net double digit support.
“Five years ago it was ‘who the heck is this guy’ and now it’s ‘we know who you are’,” said Romney, reflecting on the difference for him between 2008 and 2012.
The question that Romney must answer between now and next February is whether he can connect — whether a wealthy businessman can find ways to convince average people that he knows their hopes and fears better than anyone else in the field.
If Romney’s trip to Derry was any indication, he remains a work in progress on that front. But his poll standing combined with the relative anonymity of his opponents gives Romney a cushion of time in which to hone his pitch. Getting it right is essential to his chances of winning the nomination the second time around.