Mitt Romney steps on the accelerator in New Hampshire bus tour

KEENE, N.H. —

Mitt Romney talks about being prepared to wage a long battle for the GOP presidential nomination, and he is, if that becomes necessary. But all he is doing right now speaks to another goal: to close down the contest as quickly as he can.

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Events are working in his favor. Newt Gingrich is falling under the weight of attacks. In Iowa at least, it appears that Ron Paul is rising. Romney couldn’t be happier with that combination, as was evident when he appeared on “Fox and Friends” on Wednesday morning.

He admonished Gingrich for complaining about the negative ads raining down in Iowa and praised Paul for running an effective campaign. He knows that the congressman has virtually no chance of winning the nomination but can potentially serve as a blocking back in his own effort to defeat more-threatening rivals.

Romney rolled through this southwestern New Hampshire town early Wednesday on the opening leg of a bus tour that will take him to far-flung corners of the Granite State before a Christmas break. At a restaurant stop, he sought to highlight his ability to attract broad support by appearing with New Hampshire Republicans, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Rep. Charles F. Bass, former governor and senator Judd Gregg, and Jennifer Horn, a tea party leader who announced her endorsement.

There is an air of confidence around Romney right now, although his advisers take little for granted. This week’s bus tour is called “Earn It.” Some GOP strategists think the former Massachusetts governor learned from his first presidential campaign that he must make the sale when it counts, which is now.

His schedule is in flux, but only because he is attempting to maximize all opportunities. He hopes to take advantage of what now looks like a totally unpredictable environment in Iowa, but he knows better than to neglect New Hampshire, which he needs more than any other state to win the nomination.

The past 10 days have been very good for Romney. Each day showed a campaign speeding toward the new year with a game plan in place and the resources to implement it.

He began last week with a series of interviews with news organizations. He knew he would be asked about two things: Gingrich’s challenge and his own vulnerabilities. His rhetoric was not shrill or excessive, but he got the message out that the campaign wanted: Gingrich is a risky nominee, and he is not.

The interviews not only amplified the attacks aimed at the former House speaker from a variety of angles — including a “super PAC” supporting Romney’s candidacy that has aired the most negative attacks on Gingrich in Iowa — but also helped convey the impression of a candidate fighting, finally, for the nomination.

Many people thought Romney was using the interviews to set up a confrontation with Gingrich at last Thursday’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa. They were wrong. The interviews and TV commercials created a momentum of their own. At the debate, Romney largely ignored Gingrich. He returned to the core message of his campaign, focusing on President Obama and economic issues. His on-camera presence was designed to be presidential, not intraparty attack dog.

Romney’s campaign pivoted once again Friday, as it had long planned to do. His team has worked assiduously to win the support of prominent Republicans. It has indicated for some time that it has any number of endorsements in the pipeline to roll out when needed most. Romney added a media plane to his entourage Friday to ensure maximum coverage of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement. Her backing gives him protection against complaints that he can’t woo tea party Republicans.

Over the weekend, he won endorsements from Iowa’s largest paper, the Des Moines Register (Gingrich dismissed the backing, saying it is from a liberal newspaper and won’t count for much with Republican voters), and from Robert J. Dole, whose 1996 presidential candidacy was held hostage to Gingrich’s ultimately flawed negotiating strategy with President Bill Clinton that led to a government shutdown. The endorsement was a bit of payback by Dole.

On Monday night, at a picturesque town hall meeting in Bedford, N.H., Romney once again focused on the president. He framed the choice in 2012 as one between an opportunity society and an entitlement society, offering a vigorous defense of capitalism and free enterprise and accusing Obama of wanting to pick winners and losers and redistribute income.

Employing language that echoed that of tea party Republicans, he accused the president of using “the invisible boot of government” to bring everyone down. “President Obama says he wants to transform America. I want to restore America.”

His focus now is on winning the nomination. Three times on Wednesday — starting with “Fox and Friends,” later with NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Daily Rundown” and finally in a media session with reporters, he would not be drawn into taking sides on the standoff over whether to extend a payroll tax cut. He said he would not get involved in the “sausage making” in Washington.

He didn’t need to add the obvious: There is no percentage in doing so. The Democratic National Committee seized on his comments to accuse him of an inability to lead. But, like George W. Bush in 1999, he knows that too close an association with the unpopular congressional wing of his party can be harmful. If he becomes the nominee, he will have to deal with its poor image. Right now, it’s not a problem he wants to address.

He was primed to answer complaints from Gingrich about the negative ads aired by the super PAC supporting Romney.

“If you can’t stand the relatively modest heat in the kitchen right now, wait until Obama’s hell’s kitchen shows up,” Romney told reporters here Wednesday. “Obama’s putting together $1 billion. He’s going to be attacking us day and night.”

Later, in Manchester, Gingrich was asked about that comment. “You’re kidding, of course,” he replied, having apparently not heard. Then he flashed some of the pugnaciousness that Democrats got to know well when he was House speaker.

Saying he can “take plenty of heat,” Gingrich added, “I’ll go in the kitchen. Go back and ask Governor Romney: Would he like to play in the kitchen? I don’t think so. I don’t think he wants to do anything but hide over here and pretend it’s not his fault that he is flooding the people of Iowa with falsehoods. That’s his money and his staff, and it’s his responsibility.”

Romney has a number of obstacles to worry about. A poor showing in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 would be damaging, despite his efforts to lower expectations there. New Hampshire voters, who will cast ballots in that state’s primary on Jan. 10, are unpredictable and have given front-runners headaches in the past.

He might be ahead in the polls, but no campaign would sit on a lead in this state, knowing how quickly things can change in the final days before the vote. Hence this week’s bus tour, and more events to follow.

Beyond that, questions linger about whether the conservative base will ever warm to Romney. Endorsements from conservative or tea party leaders might help, but he will have to do more to create a connection with that vital part of the GOP. Romney hopes his assertion that he is the Republican with the best chance of winning next November will trump doubts about his conservative convictions.

This has been the most unusual of GOP campaigns, which is to say that little has been predictable. In that environment, Romney has been steady, if not spectacular, as a candidate. Now his foot is on the accelerator, and his focus on winning is single-minded. He must prove that he can be a winner only by winning, and he appears determined to do that sooner rather than later.

 
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