By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
WOLFEBORO, N.H. -- Wes Burke does not really know Mitt Romney as the multimillionaire corporate turnaround whiz or savior of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics or presidential candidate with the reputation for changing his mind. He knows him as the guy who, on a visit to Burke's home here one Sunday, noticed water running high behind the dam on the property and then offered to go with Burke to fix the broken pump.
"He's a real person," said Burke, sporting an Indian headdress after leading a Cub Scout meeting at the Mormon temple here where Romney often worships.
Romney enjoys a home-field advantage in the New Hampshire Republican primary. He served four years as governor of Massachusetts, giving him exposure to the state's voters via the Boston television stations many of them watch, and his family has had for the past decade a house on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee.
Yet gauging the depth of this advantage is no easy task, because Romney's relationship with New Hampshire is fraught with complexity. Many New Hampshire voters have mixed feelings about Massachusetts, an ambivalence that Romney may or may not be spared given that as a Republican he was fighting against his state's prevailing political tide. Then there is New Hampshire's uncertain relationship with its regular summer visitors, including a thriving community of Mormon vacationers on the Winnipesaukee.
Finally, there is Romney himself, who in his family background (roots in Michigan and Utah) and personal style (corporate power suits and nary a dropped "r") is hardly the prototypical New Englander. On the trail here, Romney seems at times almost to play down his local connections, casting himself more as a generically American business executive who just happens to have lived in the area the past few decades.
The Romney-New Hampshire dynamic stands to play a major role in the Jan. 8 primary. How much voters regard Romney as a neighbor could affect whether he carries off a resounding victory in a state that looms ever larger for him as his lead in the Iowa polls evaporates with the rise of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. At the same time, the boost Romney would get from a win here will depend on how successful his rivals are at discounting it based on his local ties.
There is plenty of recent precedent for those puzzling out the Massachusetts-New Hampshire equation. In 1988, Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis won this state by 16 percentage points over his nearest rival, setting him on course to win the Democratic nomination. He said last week that the proximity was a big edge, starting with the ease of crossing the border to campaign.
"If you don't win it, you're dead. If a Massachusetts guy can't win in New Hampshire, then he can't win anywhere," Dukakis said. "We all knew that if we didn't win in New Hampshire, that people would begin to wonder what was wrong with me."
Four years later, former senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, a resident of Lowell, just across the New Hampshire border, won the Democratic primary with 35 percent, but saw the national news media discount him as a near-favorite son and instead focus on the self-anointed "comeback kid," Bill Clinton, who took second place with 26 percent. In 2004, the dynamic was scrambled by the presence of two neighbors, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and Kerry's win in New Hampshire was driven more by Dean's collapse in Iowa than by regional leanings.
For Romney, the move across the border comes with an added nuance. He is appealing to New Hampshire Republicans and rightward-leaning independents, many of whom regard Massachusetts as a bastion of liberalism run amok, and some of whom moved to New Hampshire to flee what they saw as Massachusetts's high taxes and heavy regulation.
More than 90,000 people moved from Massachusetts to New Hampshire between 2000 and 2005, more than 40 percent of people moving to the state from elsewhere in the country, according to the U.S. census.
"Some of us don't like people from Massachusetts. I'm from there, and I don't like it," said David DeVoi, a Republican who moved from Dedham, Mass., to New Hampshire's Lakes Region after his retirement, and who turned out to see Romney at a diner in Meredith last week. "I don't like their politics. They stink."
But other Republicans here do not hold Romney's address against him, saying he did his best to restrain his state's liberal impulses. Romney, who settled in the Boston area after attending Harvard Business School, tries to encourage this line of thinking, referring often to his battles against tax-and-spenders in Massachusetts. One of his television advertisements begins, "In the most liberal state in the country, one Republican stood up."
Dukakis warns that Romney's denigration of Massachusetts might offend the regional pride of even some New Hampshire Republicans.
"He's got a tough row to hoe," Dukakis said. "He's running around the country belittling Massachusetts, then he comes back to a region that thinks of itself as a region, that all New Englanders take pride in. He has to decide: Does he campaign as a near-neighbor, or does he run away from it? He's all around the lot on this."
In New Hampshire last week, Romney could be seen walking a fine line in reminding voters of his local ties without placing too much weight on them. Addressing a Rotary luncheon in Concord, he referred to Massachusetts simply as "my state to the south of here" in discussing the universal health-care plan he signed, the subject of some skeptical questions at the event. Delivering a stump speech with the help of PowerPoint, he looked more like a businessman visiting from Ohio than a Boston pol.
Arriving later in the day at the diner in Meredith, not far from his family's lake house, Romney joked about being back among friends and about paying New Hampshire property taxes. But he also relayed an anecdote portraying himself as a clueless flatlander on his first visit to the family's house in winter, when he crept out on the frozen lake with a ladder to spread his weight out, only to see a pickup truck go speeding past on the ice.
And in his closing riff, he cast himself less as a local than as a kind of cross-regional paragon. "The first time I went to Iowa," he recalled, "they said, 'You have heartland values.' I said, 'Explain what they are.' I listened, and I said, 'Well, yeah, I do have heartland values.' When I was in the South, they said, 'You have Southern values.' Well, yeah, you have Southern values, too, because they're the same thing," he said. He then concluded almost as an afterthought, "It's same thing here. You have Yankee values."
To many residents of the Lakes Region, Romney is simply another of the well-to-do people who flock to the area in the summertime. They recall the fuss after he was elected governor and the Massachusetts State Police set out buoys declaring the waters near the Romney house off-limits. "That didn't last too long. He took a lot of abuse," said David Hughey, a Massachusetts investment adviser who retired in the area.
And they recall the time in 2003 Romney and two of his sons rushed into the lake on their personal watercraft to rescue a family of six adults whose boat had sprung a leak, an episode that garnered Romney flattering headlines in the local papers. But those who probably know Romney best in the area are members of the local Mormon community, which triples in size in the summer with the influx of dozens of vacationing families. Members of that cohort trace the influx to the Marriott hotel family, which decades ago bought a former girls camp on the lake as a family estate. Fellow Washington area Mormons visited them, fell in love with the Lakes Region and bought places of their own.
At the temple in Wolfeboro, a genteel resort town visited in the summer by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, members said Romney and his family were notable for their inconspicuousness within the congregation. Grace Boyer, another leader of the temple's Cub Scout troop, said she recalled leading a Sunday school class in the summer and being struck by Romney's willingness to hold back, even though he had in the past held a leadership title within the church.
"For a man of his stature, he can sit and let others learn and discuss," she said. "He doesn't have to be the man of the hour."