He says he feels himself wanting to back Romney, though he quickly adds that it’s too early to commit. Besides, he’s been high on Romney before.
“In 2007, I heard him speak and was enormously impressed,” Patch says. “He spoke with a simple clarity about the economy that was compelling. I went up to him afterward and said, ‘Governor, I like what you said and how you did it. Stay on the economy. Just speak simply and directly. Please don’t let anybody change that.’ But somebody did — somebody changed him.”
Some of his strongest New Hampshire backers want to see a Romney who is unplugged this time. Beverly Bruce, a Romney supporter in Carroll County and the vice chairman of the county’s Republican committee, arranged for him be the keynote speaker at the committee’s Lincoln Day event in March. Romney didn’t leave until he chatted with nearly all of the 300-plus guests in attendance, she recalls.
“I’ve seen him over the years at picnics,” Bruce says. “What I see is something different than I guess some people do. I’ve seen him running around, I’ve seen him in water balloon fights — he’s like a big kid in those moments. It’s not the Mitt Romney people see often enough.”
Some hear mixed message
Even if Romney presents a fuller portrait of himself this time, it probably will not satisfy that segment of New Hampshire Republicans long suspicious that his conservatism is fungible, his principles virtually nonexistent.
Retired lawyer Linda Teagan, a Carroll County resident and a Republican transplant from Massachusetts, sits in Patch’s Market as others around her tout Romney’s accomplishments in the private sector.
Teagan is unmoved. In Romney, she sees a career marked by a troubling pattern of inconsistency. She recalls Romney expressing support for the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision during his victorious 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign and, in the 1990s, offering that he had been “an independent” during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and did not wish to return “to the days of Reagan-Bush.”
What road, she asks the others, did Romney travel from Massachusetts to get to this point, where he now reveres Reagan and has changed his stance on abortion?
She is blunt about her befuddlement.
“It’s not that I dislike him — it’s that I don’t think I know him,” she says. “I want to know how his mind works, and I don’t.”
Uncertainty about Romney’s beliefs — sometimes reflected in disdain for the man — was at the heart of his 2008 New Hampshire defeat, say several New Hampshire Republicans once close to him. Some of them complain that the candidate failed to stay on his jobs-and-economy message and squandered his greatest strength in the process.
Two of the advisers — Rich Killion and former New Hampshire state senator Bruce Keough — have privately voiced disappointment over never getting a meeting with Romney’s national team to go over all that had gone wrong in 2008. Eventually, they left Romney. Killion is working as a top New Hampshire strategist for Pawlenty.
However, several of Romney’s key New Hampshire figures remain with him, including one of the state’s leading strategists, Tom Rath, and Merrill, his New Hampshire campaign manager last time.
Merrill says he has heard the criticism “and I respectfully disagree. Perhaps the economy and jobs were not as front and center in 2008 as before the financial meltdown. This time it’s clear who has demonstrated leadership on that issue. I think that is why Governor Romney resonates here.”
Still, all the intrigue and early maneuvering obscures a historic New Hampshire reality. In the end, Romney’s fate will rest with those who have yet to start paying attention — to the race or its presumed front-runner.
In Patch’s Market, where a candidate’s supporters and foes walk the aisles together, Ron Patch believes that most of his customers are still a long way from making up their minds about Romney. For every visitor who views him as a potentially dynamic, job-creating president, or who perceives an opportunist unworthy of America’s trust, Patch sees many more people simply wondering which Mitt Romney will reveal himself this time.
“You want to see the true him,” Patch says, “whoever that is.”