MEREDITH, N.H. — To the basement of an upscale resort hotel and conference center in this Lake Winnipesaukee resort town — just down the Daniel Webster Highway from the local Harley-Davidson dealership (“Who deserves it more than you? Nobody.”) — is where Ron Paul brought his surging presidential campaign Sunday afternoon.
His mission: to win over the 15 percent of likely New Hampshire primary-election voters who say they remain undecided, two days out from the GOP contest.
The results, at least thus far: decidedly mixed.
As Paul climbs in the polls, the town of Meredith provides a good case study when it comes to the challenges — and opportunities — the Texas Republican faces.
This town of about 6,000 sits in Romney Country: Across a lake, 20 miles to the east, is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s summer home in the town of Wolfeboro.
In the 2008 GOP primary, Paul was barely a blip here. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) won Meredith with 40 percent of the vote, with Romney in second place, with 31 percent. In fifth place — even below former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani — was Paul, with 6 percent.
But there are signs that this area is fertile ground for Paul. A good share of the more than 300 people who attended his event Sunday were undecided voters who had come to hear his pitch.
(The man introducing Paul made a point of targeting those undecideds: “It’s absolutely critical that we get every vote possible, so I ask that if you’re a Ron Paul supporter, if you’re from out of town, please leave [the questions] to the undecided voters,” he said.)
Several of those attending the event described themselves as independents who had supported Barack Obama in the 2008 general election but who were interested in hearing more about Paul’s views. (The 2008 general election was close in Meredith, with Obama taking 51 percent to McCain’s 48 percent.)
Paul’s libertarian views would seem to hit home here, where just down the road from his event a “Don’t tread on me” flag hangs outside Abe’s Awesome Armaments, and some voters consider Paul’s message as one and the same with the Granite State’s “Live Free or Die” motto.
Some undecided voters came away from Sunday’s event turned off by the congressman. And questions from others focused on topics about which most non-Paul supporters have expressed concern when it comes to the candidate’s views: his non-interventionist foreign policy and his stance on ending U.S. aid to Israel.
Kevin Saba, a 54-year-old small-business owner from Waterville Valley, came to the event with his wife, Leslie. They consider themselves independents who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and they voted for Obama in 2008.
This time, though, Kevin Saba said he thinks he’s going to end up voting a Republican ballot. As he left the event, he was as undecided as when he entered about which candidate would best overcome the gridlock in Washington.
“There’s only one issue: jobs,” he said. “If you look around, you’re looking at all these people that want to work that can’t work. . . . You watch all these people — the stresses in the families when they don’t have work, it’s just phenomenal.
“Until they put America back to work again, nothing else matters,” he added.
Saba said he was unimpressed with Paul’s answer to his question about how he would solve the country’s jobs crisis if he were handed a “clean slate” — 435 new House members and 100 new senators.
“He didn’t answer it,” he said.
Leslie Saba, too, said she was not happy with Paul’s response.
“I don’t feel like he understood the question,” she said. “I think they all have an image of what they think they’re going to do when they get there. . . . But when you get there, it’s different.”
There were some among the crowd, however, who said they had decided on Paul in recent weeks. At least one attendee said that he had changed his mind after talking with his son — a comment that had echoes of the early days of Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“At the prompting of my 16-year-old son, I took a look at the Ron Paul campaign, and I’m liking what I’m seeing,” the man told Paul as he prefaced a question about what advice the candidate would have for young people who want to be future leaders.
Several other formerly undecided voters had warm words for Paul.
“I’ve been supporting him for a couple of months,” said Joshua Crawford, a 21-year-old maintenance technician for the Concord Housing Authority who was wearing a Paul 2012 sweatshirt. “I just like his message of freedom. ‘Live Free or Die.’ Following the Constitution.”
Crawford, like the Sabas, voted for Obama four years ago, “because back then, the country needed some change.”
“But I think we changed in the wrong direction, and I think Ron Paul can take us back to where America’s supposed to be, giving it back to the people,” he said.
Now, he said, he’s so enthusiastic about Paul, “I got my whole apartment complex to vote for him. I just get the message out there and then everyone seems to jump right on.”
Although many voters are concerned about Paul’s foreign policy views, Crawford said that “actually, that’s one of the reasons I like him the most.”
“We’ve got bases in everyone’s country,” he said. “If someone stuck an Iranian base in Manchester, New Hampshire, no one would be happy. People would want them to get out. And then we would resent them. And if we put ourselves in their shoes, it’s just easier to understand where those people are coming from.”
The event was not without its longtime Paul supporters, many of whom were standing near the stage as the candidate spoke, cheering and yelling out his name between questions.
For them, the lingering question is not whether Paul will finish first on Tuesday — even his most ardent fans acknowledge that’s doubtful — but what will come next for their candidate. Some say a third-party or an independent bid, while others float the idea of a national convention at which Paul could wield his delegates to win some policy concessions from the eventual winner.
“I don’t think he’s going to win,” said Crawford Lyons, 50, of Concord, a Paul supporter since his 2008 bid. “I think, unfortunately, Romney’s been in New Hampshire way too long. I mean, essentially, this is his back yard. And he’s been campaigning actively for at least eight years.”
Lyons said that his biggest hope for Paul at the moment is that he “collects at least 20 percent in most of the primaries, and that he has a significant amount of delegates that he brings to the process and basically negotiates with Romney as to what’s going to be on the platform, and basically make him sign up for some key aspects of the Ron Paul campaign.”
In the event that doesn’t happen, does Lyons think Paul should wage a third-party bid?
“Yes, I do,” he said. “Because there’s no way I would vote for any of the Republicans unless there was that deal that I was talking about, which I don’t see happening.”
Other Paul die-hards say that even with a loss in New Hampshire, the candidate’s broader campaign is far from finished.
“It’s going to be between Romney and Paul,” Glen Aldrich said as he stood with his chocolate Labrador, Lola, at the side of the Daniel Webster Highway, rallying support for the contender. “[Rick] Santorum doesn’t have the money. He only raised a million bucks coming off a second-place win. . . . Ron Paul made $12 million in the third quarter.”
Aldrich, a 54-year-old unemployed carpenter from Guilford, was wearing a “Don’t tread on me” baseball cap and was flashing the peace sign to drivers passing by. Both he and Lola were sporting shirts adorned with Paul pins.
As he spoke, a car drove by and a passenger yelled out, “Ron Paul! Ron Paul!”
“The state, after all, is ‘Live Free or Die,’ ” Aldrich said of New Hampshire. “And if [the slogan] wasn’t already used, Ron Paul would probably be using it.
“I mean, there’s our license plate right there,” he added. “We take that seriously.”