MANCHESTER, N.H. — Every New Hampshire presidential primary is different from the others, and that is certainly the case this year. So far, it is the least-dramatic contested Republican primary in three decades. For Mitt Romney, that’s both a blessing and a possible curse.
The former Massachusetts governor flew out of the state Thursday for an overnight campaign trip to South Carolina, leaving the Granite State to rivals Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman Jr. (Ron Paul was away.) His departure was evidence more of his recognition that South Carolina looms as the biggest of the first three tests for his candidacy than of overconfidence about his standing in New Hampshire.
GOP PRIMARY TRACKER: See which candidates are visiting the early states and where they focusing their time and resources.
His campaign is continuing its due diligence four days before the balloting here Tuesday — making phone calls, knocking on doors and preparing to turn out its supporters. The team’s strategy is to follow the pattern that has worked so far.
Polls show Romney in a commanding position but also confronted with the high expectations that come with being a part-time resident and a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. His advisers are mindful of what happened to Barack Obama here four years ago. He arrived as a heavy favorite after a big victory in Iowa. Five days later, Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated him in a stunning upset that he never saw coming.
Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, said the Romney campaign reviewed Obama’s New Hampshire campaign and quickly came to the same conclusion that Obama and his advisers did after that loss: The candidate got swept away by his own reviews, by the crowds and by the polls, and he forgot to make the sale in a state where many voters don’t truly make their decisions until the final week.
Obama held big rallies that conveyed passion but masked how many voters were still up for grabs. He did not conduct real town hall meetings, which are the hallmark of New Hampshire presidential politics. He took people for granted. As Obama floated above the fray, Clinton got into the trenches, fielding questions and even meeting undecided voters on their doorsteps for part of a day.
Stevens said Romney will try to avoid Obama’s mistakes. By inference he means Romney will try to emulate the Clinton approach. That means he will stay humble and keep pushing until the final hours. Some large rallies will be held at the end, but his advisers are mindful that New Hampshire voters prefer smaller venues and the right to make contenders feel uncomfortable with their questions. Above all, the candidate will continue talking with voters.
The plan began to unfold Wednesday when Romney arrived after his eight-vote victory in Iowa for a town hall forum in Manchester, where he received the endorsement of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Some reviews of the event were terrible. Romney was confronted by hostile questions. Stevens shrugged off the critiques. Not the point, he said Wednesday night in Peterborough. The point was to show Romney taking on all comers, not avoiding their queries.