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.