Heading into N.H. primary, GOP finds itself stuck

Voters here are not exactly witnessing the golden age of political oratory. The Republican candidates have been, at times, predictable, verbose, sullen and combative. They’ve quoted the Declaration of Independence a lot.

Mitt Romney annotates “America the Beautiful,” Newt Gingrich lectures on the Scottish Enlightenment, and Rick Santorum gets so deep into the minutiae of the legislative process that he has all but declared himself a creature of Washington.

Ron Paul’s army would walk barefoot across a frozen lake for him, but many voters here have yet to find their match — someone who propels them into full-blown political rapture.

The GOP heads into Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary in an unexpected and uncomfortable position. The party that once seemed to have so many advantages going into 2012 — a fired-up base, an unpopular Democratic president, a struggling economy — now finds itself stuck, ambivalent about its front-runner and unable to decide on an alternative.

“I wish I could take Jon Huntsman’s foreign-policy experience and put it together with Newt Gingrich’s this and Mitt Romney’s that and Rick Santorum’s that,” Deborah Anderson, 53, a former teacher who runs a business with her husband, said after attending a Romney town hall meeting in Salem.

In 2010, the GOP fed off the anti-establishment energy of the tea party movement, but now Republicans are closer to the nomination of Romney, a quintessentially establishment figure with a record of compromising with liberals.

Hard-line conservatives here — as across the country — are dismayed.

“He’s too nice a guy. He’s too soft,” said Bill Lonardo, a retired jewelry company owner who attended an establishment GOP dinner Friday in Nashua. He prefers Gingrich, for the former House speaker’s edgier personality. “Abrasive! That’s what we need.”

This state has staged some epic primary battles that are part of American political lore: Ronald Reagan vs. George H.W. Bush in 1980, Bill Clinton’s “Comeback Kid” effort in 1992, John McCain vs. George W. Bush in 2000. Most recently, there was 2008, in which Barack Obama fought a smash-mouth contest against Hillary Rodham Clinton, who came from behind in the polls to beat him in a shocker. Also that year, McCain beat back Romney to start his march to the nomination.

This contest is different, said Judd Gregg, a former U.S. senator from New Hampshire who supports Romney.

“There isn’t a challenger [to Romney] out there who fires people up,” Gregg said. “So I just don’t think you have that sort of energy.”

Gregg recalls the buzz in 2000 when McCain barreled across the state in his bus, the Straight Talk Express, running a maverick campaign against establishment favorite Bush.

“You could hear John McCain coming,” Gregg said. “I don’t hear anyone coming.”

Former governor John Sununu, another Romney backer, said Friday at the GOP dinner in Nashua, “There’s much less movement here than there has been in the past.” He insisted that the lack of volatility didn’t mean a lack of excitement, but polls show that the “enthusiasm gap” that so favored Republicans in 2010 has narrowed considerably in recent months.

The tea party supporters, who were largely responsible for the GOP’s enthusiasm margin in 2010, have had serial infatuations with politicians who fizzled under the heat lamp of the campaign. Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann are gone, Sarah Palin never ran, and Rick Perry, though still nominally competing, finished so poorly in Iowa that he went home to ponder his future. Now many of those activists are spread among the remaining candidates, or are still on the sidelines.

“The enthusiasm was so focused . . . with many thousands of new folks who decided to get super-charged and active. It was a great time,” said prominent New Hampshire tea party activist Jack Kimball, who first liked Herman Cain and has moved on to ­Gingrich.

Tea party activists are engaged in the race, he added, “but we’re all a little perplexed because there are a lot of candidates.”

Romney has drawn respectable crowds but has generated none of the electricity one would expect of a future nominee. In his first gathering, he brought out his former rival, McCain, as a celebrity endorser. The applause was polite. Hecklers disrupted. Romney’s staff had to cordon off the room with big curtains to make it seem more crowded.

“I’m not super enthusiastic,” said Kathleen McMahon, 42, a trained counselor who is looking for work and attended the Romney event with her mother and 19-year-old son. “I like him, but he is a little quiet, not kind of exciting. But maybe that’s a good thing, because the exciting ones can do strange things.”

Cathy Clair, a school bus driver in Nashua, said at the GOP dinner there that she is still making up her mind but that Romney is too establishment for her taste. “I don’t want the same ol’ same ol’, ” she says.

Bob Smith, a former U.S. senator here and a Gingrich backer, sat in the back of a Gingrich event in Laconia and pondered the conservative conundrum: “Seventy-five percent of the people in Iowa said they didn’t want Romney. Which conservative left in the pack do Republican conservatives want to be their nominee? Bachmann is gone, probably Perry is gone. So that leaves Santorum, who’s a new phenomenon, and Newt. Ron Paul’s Ron Paul.”

Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Concord, has met every candidate, and for the first time since he started voting in New Hampshire primaries in 1988, Arlinghaus can’t get excited about anyone in the race.

“There are bits and pieces of each of them that I like a lot, but everybody has something I don’t like,” he said.

“It’s hard to decide if it’s a quandary or just indecisiveness,” Arlinghaus added, recalling his fondness in 1988 for Jack Kemp. “Part of it is liking certain things about too many people and not feeling passionately about anybody.”

“In the good old days, it was very linear,” Arlinghaus said. “There was a moderate, a conservative and a guy who’s sort of halfway between the two. . . . Now there are different packages. Each one is a mix, moderate in some areas, conservative in others.”

Romney’s commanding lead here hardly registers as big news. He governed next door in Massachusetts, his visage regularly beamed into the Granite State via Boston TV stations.

Romney has run a drama-free campaign, taking few chances while raising staggering sums of money and putting together a formidable national organization. The result is a candidate who has never caught fire in the classic sense. Instead, he glows like a plastic log in an electric hearth.

The person who ought to have hit New Hampshire like a bomb going off is Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who surged in the final days to tie Romney with 25 percent of the vote in Iowa. Traditionally, a surprisingly good finish in Iowa means a meaningful bounce coming into New Hampshire.

But Santorum sneaked into the state so quietly Wednesday that he may as well have been planning a heist. His crowds have been building by the day, but he has been unable to erode Romney’s support and in the polls is still trailing Paul.

At his first event Wednesday, a speech at a retirement home in a room jammed with media and a couple of hundred very patient retirees, Santorum arrived without fanfare. He said almost nothing about Iowa, as if it had never happened. During the question period, he explained at extraordinary length the machinery of the Social Security system, proposing that the retirement age should be raised and benefits cut for well-off retirees. These were not applause lines in this crowd.

On Thursday, he found himself outnumbered by liberal college students at a convention center in Concord. There was no sign of a crowd-building effort by the Santorum camp. The students pelted him with questions about same-sex marriage, which he implicitly compared to polygamy. He sparred aggressively, posing his own questions in the Socratic style. As he left the stage, the students booed.

And then there is Ron Paul.

Paul didn’t show up for three days after Iowa. When he finally appeared Friday afternoon, he got a rousing welcome from hundreds of supporters in a Nashua airplane hangar.

“Ron! Paul! Ron! Paul!” they chanted.

Some of Paul’s libertarian positions, particularly on foreign policy, are so antithetical to modern Republican orthodoxy that few outside his battalion of supporters see him as the nominee. But he has become a force this year, powered by the passions of his diverse coalition of followers. And he could do damage to the GOP in the fall if his supporters feel alienated by the party and he decides on a third-party bid.

The occasional voter here has fallen in love. Seacoast real estate magnate Renee Plummer is a Huntsman fan. He has the “it factor,” she gushes. On Thursday, she summoned him to meet with some of her tenants, many of them bankers, in an office building in Portsmouth. The former Utah governor barely registers in national polls but has essentially lived in New Hampshire in recent months to make his case. He said his goal Tuesday is to “have a market-moving event” that might introduce him to the nation as the Romney alternative. That seems unlikely, but Huntsman fans see him laying groundwork for 2016.

Some here are just fed up with the spectacle. Jeremy Colby, owner of Colby’s Breakfast & Lunch in Portsmouth, got so tired of would-be presidents and their entou­rages clogging up his tiny restaurant to chat with patrons and look neighborly that he finally drew the line.

He now hangs a sign on the front door: “No Politicians, No Exceptions.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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