AMHERST, N.H. — The GOP presidential hopefuls who hit the campaign trail on the Fourth of July spent their time doing much the same thing — over and over again. They walked and waved their way through parades, shook hundreds of hands, and dropped by back-yard cookouts, capitalizing on the day’s patriotic fervor to try to make inroads in key early states.
But their time on the hustings underscored that while their method of face-to-face retail politics is the same, their starting points for the Republican nomination race are miles apart: One race begins in this primary-obsessed state, where Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. marched in the same parade; another begins in Iowa, where Rep. Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich saw the same flags and smiling faces as they walked down Main Street in Clear Lake, shaking hands and posing for pictures.
Romney and Huntsman have charted their course to the nomination through New Hampshire, where Democrats and independents will play a role in next year’s primary, making the contest look more like the general election.
Bachmann and Gingrich were in Iowa (as was Rick Santorum), battling for the votes of the 60,000 or so mostly conservative caucus-goers who will pick a winner there, giving a candidate the first victory of the 2012 election season.
Bachmann, who announced her candidacy in Waterloo last week and had a strong second-place showing behind Romney in a recent Des Moines poll, vowed to become a regular in the Hawkeye State — where a win could give her candidacy a powerful boost.
“We’ll be back many, many, many times,” she promised.
In New Hampshire, if there were ever any doubt which candidate has the edge, it was made clear from the start of the parade here, where Romney, Pied Piper-like, was at the head of the line and had the biggest and loudest crowd. Two girls who sold lemonade to Huntsman were even wearing Romney stickers, prompting Huntsman to grab a roll of his campaign stickers from an aide and start handing them out.
“Welcome to New Hampshire. It’s not Beijing, but it’s lovely,” Romney said to Huntsman, until recently President Obama’s ambassador to China, in their 30-second encounter, highlighting his opponent’s newcomer status amid handshakes and hugs.
Asked how important New Hampshire is to his strategy, Romney, dripping with sweat by the end of the parade, offered one word: “Very.”
Romney, who repeated his charge that Obama has deepened the recession, has led polls here for months, with Huntsman eyeing the same swath of fiscal conservatives. But the abundance of Romney posters, stickers, brochures and well-wishers shows how much ground Huntsman has to make up.
For Huntsman, even a second-place finish could be a springboard to South Carolina, a la Sen. John McCain in 2008, and his advisers have said they will mount one of the most aggressive ground games the state has ever seen.
“We are going to put in the work and the effort that is necessary in this state, because it’s critical to our victory,” Huntsman said.
Both Huntsman and Romney, who announced in New Hampshire, will sit out the Ames straw poll in Iowa, and Huntsman won’t contest the state at all, ceding ground and possibly an early upper hand to his rivals. A win for Romney in Iowa, or even a strong second, would be unexpected and would give his candidacy a sense of inevitability.
For Gingrich, July 4 was the first of 16 days he plans to spend in Iowa this month and next. But he made just one visit to the state last month, and the glad-handing marked a change from the private fundraisers and television appearances that have characterized his campaign so far, as he has worked to recover from a disastrous June that saw the resignation of most of his top staff.
The contrast with Bachmann in Clear Lake was stark. As a former elected official, Gingrich was given the 30th spot in the parade — far back from the sitting congresswoman’s 10th-place start. He walked a meandering pace, trailing a turquoise convertible with a handwritten “Go Newt” sign sign taped to the side.
“There’s a certain balancing act between the three,” Gingrich said of plans to split time between early states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. “They have a different rhythm. Iowa requires a very personal touch — the caucuses are so intense. . . . Here, people want to get to know you at the pace we’re going today.”
For Bachmann, the July 4 parade was the final stop on a three-day blitz across the Hawkeye State, which included an address to a tea party group at the Capitol in Des Moines, Sunday speeches at two churches, and meet-and-greets at a diner, a pizzeria and a minor-league baseball game.
She trotted the parade at a pace appproaching a sprint, pumping her arms, waving frenetically and darting from one side of the road to the other as her massive new campaign bus trailed behind, periodically sounding its air horn.
The Minnesota congresswoman’s relatively late entry has meant she does not yet have a fully formed campaign infrastructure in Iowa like Tim Pawlenty, who sat out Fourth of July events. But what she lacks in organization she makes up for with momentum and a conservative, evangelical background that has helped put her in the top tier in Iowa.
“We’re thrilled,” she said of the energy generated by her Iowa appearances in a brief chat with trailing reporters. “We’ve been from the Mississippi River all the way to Sioux City. What we saw was incredible, concentrated support.”
“Let me shake your hand!” shouted Don Fix, 51, of Cedar Falls as Bachmann sprinted past in Clear Lake. Fix said he is still choosing between Bachmann and Romney. But he said he was impressed Bachmann chose to spend July 4 in Iowa.
“That means big stuff for me,” he said. As for Romney’s New Hampshire holiday, Fix said: “That’s disappointing. Iowa is first in the nation. This is where it starts.”
Back in New Hampshire, as Romney made his second stop of the day in Andover, a woman questioned Bachmann’s Iowa focus.
“Michele should be here. The action is here in New Hampshire, not Iowa,” said Laura Condon of Bedford. “Politics is our state Olympics. In Iowa, it’s a hobby.”
In contested GOP presidential races, New Hampshire voters have made a habit of vetoing Iowa’s choice, setting up South Carolina as the tiebreaker.
“Everybody focuses on New Hampshire — it’s a given,” said Steven Hedgpeth, 54, of Webster.
Helderman reported from Clear Lake, Iowa.
Read more on PostPolitics.com
Campaign 2012: New ‘Super PACs’ wage a shadow campaign
Fact Checker: A well-used but misleading Medicaid statistic