His moment is here again, in the state where last time the dream unraveled. Monday night, on a stage in Manchester, Mitt Romney will compete in New Hampshire’s opening debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, his first major test since he lost the 2008 Republican nomination to John McCain.
Now, as at various points four years ago, Romney leads big against GOP rivals in the New Hampshire polls. Now, as then, he is better financed than any foe. Some things don’t change: His black hair and preternaturally youthful appearance, even at 64. His ability to put together a phone bank and raise $10 million in a single day. His emphasis on his venture capital background and how he can conceptualize job creation in the way mere politicians can’t.
But otherwise, everything is different now. To his New Hampshire skeptics, he looks like the most vulnerable of front-runners, despite a Washington Post-ABC News poll that says he is running even with President Obama. This time the doubters believe he is already bleeding, wounded by years of opponents’ charges that his career has been defined by expedient flip-flops. They suspect his condition has worsened in the wake of escalating attacks over something he refuses to renounce, a Massachusetts health-care plan he signed into law as that state’s governor.
For their part, Romney’s backers say their candidate is better prepared, more disciplined and competing against an arguably weaker field than existed four years ago. The painful 2008 loss, they say, taught him the importance of avoiding distractions and relentlessly focusing his message on the economy.
“There is great respect here for what Governor Romney did in Massachusetts, how he turned a deficit into a surplus,” says Jim Merrill, who was Romney’s 2008 New Hampshire campaign manager and has a key role in the campaign this time. “. . . We know the voters are going to want someone with the skills to put the economy front and center.”
But some of Romney’s top 2008 allies have said that if he loses the Granite State primary again, his campaign will die here.
“He’s formidable and it’s his race to lose, but I’ve told them — I see no path for Mitt Romney if he cannot win New Hampshire,” political consultant Jamie Burnett says.
Burnett, Romney’s 2008 New Hampshire political director, says he is not committed to supporting the candidate this time and will stay on the sidelines indefinitely.
Amid the backdrop of an unsettled Republican field, Romney will square off at Saint Anselm College on Monday against six GOP rivals: Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Georgia businessman Herman Cain. The debate is being billed as the most important event of the presidential campaign thus far. And of the major contenders only Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and China envoy, has decided to skip it. Many New Hampshire observers are eager to see whether Romney can use the opportunity to bolster his standing among his conservative critics.
Former Romney allies and skeptics are conspicuous throughout the state, including in New Hampshire’s Carroll County, a Republican bastion where Romney has a lakeside vacation estate in the town of Wolfeboro. Residents there generally call him Mitt.
Nowhere in the state do people know Romney better than in Carroll County. The county, like the state, is seemingly split into two camps when it comes to Romney: those who like and support him with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and those who like him as a neighbor but not as a future president, having concluded he is not nearly conservative or consistent enough.
“People here really appreciate Mitt,” says Wolfeboro resident Luke Freudenberg, a former Carroll County Republican chairman whose vacation-home maintenance company along Lake Winnipesaukee has done work on the Romney property. “He’s kind, very accessible.”
But Freudenberg gently says he is looking “for an alternative” to Romney.
“I don’t think anybody here is giving him a blank check, and his health-care program up in Massachusetts is a problem for him,” Freudenberg says. “And last time, some people in the state started calling him ‘Flip-Flop Mitt.’ ”
With national unemployment above 9 percent, Romney’s private-sector experience as an executive who assisted struggling businesses appeals deeply to boosters who view it as an irresistible campaign metaphor.
But memories of his 2008 missteps are long here.
Some Romney loyalists believe their candidate’s intense focus on winning the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses blinded him to the increasing tightness of the race in New Hampshire, where McCain, whose cash-starved campaign had seemingly imploded, was surging.
“We could tell by September  that we had a problem,” recalled a 2008 Romney supporter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships with New Hampshire Republicans. “We told his national [advisers] that we could see McCain gaining, but Romney wouldn’t take the gas off Iowa.”
Iowa became the first of two devastating blows to the Romney candidacy. After spending millions in the state and building what he thought was an insurmountable lead, he watched dejectedly as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee caught fire late and rode a wave of evangelical support to victory. The second blow came five days later in New Hampshire, where McCain had scored an upset over George W. Bush in 2000. McCain’s troops kept pressing until the end that Romney could not be trusted to remain true to conservative tenets.
Romney lost to McCain by about five percentage points. He never recovered.
One episode continues to haunt his campaign in the state. In early 2007, a hunter wearing a National Rifle Association cap asked Romney a simple question about his position on gun rights. To the consternation of stunned advisers, the candidate embellished his outdoor resume, declaring that he had hunted “pretty much all my life.” Soon, he was cornered into conceding that what he had hunted were “rodents . . . small varmints.”
The episode has stubbornly followed him, reflecting what local detractors continue to call Romney’s “authenticity problem.”
One of his Republican rivals, Huntsman, already has signaled that he sees the matter as a vulnerability to be exploited.
During a recent Huntsman appearance at a gun shop in Hooksett, N.H., a Politico reporter asked what he hunted.
“Large varmints,” the candidate quipped.
Word of Huntsman’s jab floated back to Carroll County and other parts of the state, where some amused GOP activists said they instantly understood the context of the dig and its potential threat to Romney.
“This perception challenge hasn’t shown any signs of going away in voters’ minds soon,” says Burnett, the former campaign aide. “If the Romney campaign doesn’t get a hold on that, his message about being the man to fix the economy might not much matter to undecided voters.”
Chris Winters, a retired airline ticket agent and a Carroll County Republican, is worried about the economy and the future of her 29-year-old daughter, Danielle, who has a master’s degree in public administration but has yet to find permanent work. On a drizzly, unseasonably cool May afternoon in the village of Glen, the 67-year-old Winters sits at a snack table at Patch’s Market with her jacket on, trying to ward off her chill and concerns.
Most of her Republican friends have vowed to take their time settling on a presidential candidate. Not Winters. She is a resolute Romney supporter, as is Danielle, a Romney field representative in the area.
Winters sees candidates pushing multi-issue agendas when her focus is grimly singular.
“You have people out there like my daughter who have these great degrees, and they’re not getting jobs,” she says. “Romney has one skill the others don’t, if you ask me. His business experience shows he knows how to take businesses that are failing and then revamp them and see them flourish.”
A Republican across the table nods.
“Yeah, I like Romney, too,” says Dick McClure, a local resident who has a machining-parts business based in Pennsylvania from which he commutes back and forth. “Romney understands profit and loss, and he brought order out of that mess with the Olympics in Utah.”
A beaming Winters nods, nods, nods.
McClure sips from a cup and lifts a finger, to signal he has arrived at his most important point here about Romney.
“If our country has ever needed his kind of good business-executive sense, it’s now. But,” McClure pauses, “I don’t know about him.”
“Huh?” Winters murmurs.
“It’s just that I’m looking for someone who is really going to get elected, someone with no baggage,” he says.
“All candidates have some baggage,” Winters says sharply, adding that she doesn’t need a candidate who passes a conservative litmus test on every fiscal and social issue. “None of that other stuff matters to me, and I’m a conservative. He learned from his last campaign here how to win.”
It is a view embraced by a corps of New Hampshire Republicans who are new Romney backers, after staying neutral or supporting McCain in 2008. To them, Romney is the seasoned warrior who has learned from his mistakes and paid his dues to become the top man. And he has received endorsements from key state figures, such as Executive Councilor Ray Burton.
“This is not a time to be picking someone untested to run against Obama,” Burton says.
From his desk in Patch’s Market, 60-year-old Ron Patch has seen presidential hopefuls come and go. Patch is viewed around Glen as a low-key community leader whose good word about a candidate can take 30, 40 primary voters with him.
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.”
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.”