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Bright light but no clarity in New Hampshire

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone

The sun was shining bright today in New Hampshire, a full moon lit the landscape at night, temperatures hovered at just above or below freezing. But the political future was not clearly visible. New Hampshire votes exactly 30 days from Sunday, a week after Iowa, and Mitt Romney has consistently led in polls here. But Newt Gingrich is leading in polls in the other three January contests and a win in the Iowa caucuses may give him the momentum to overcome what the realclearpolitics.com average tells us is currently a 36%-24% Romney lead in what he has always hoped would be his Granite State firewall.

The Romney top folks in New Hampshire and in headquarters (referred to with something like awe as “Boston”). New Hampshire coordinator Jason McBride, who led Romney’s successful 2008 campaign in Michigan, says baldly, “We’re not going to lose in New Hampshire.” The Romney organization, he says, has been at it since May, working on everything from yard signs (Romney leads by a mile on signs in New Hampshire this year) and absentee voting which is just starting to come in (the Romney campaign didn’t have an absentee effort here in 2008). They want to win 38% of the vote, which should be enough to win (last time John McCain beat Romney 37%-32%), since a certain percentage will go to Ron Paul (who is at 16% in the realclearpolitics.com average but, everyone believes, has a ceiling not much above that) and a few points to Barack Obama and other Democrats (who can get votes from Republican primary voters in New Hampshire).

What about the Gingrich surge? “We always knew we were going to have somebody” as chief opponent, McBride says; another Romneyite quips that they’d rather face Gingrich as a chief opponent than anyone else. McBride notes that none of the New Hampshire staffers Gingrich has recently assembled is labeled as a field operator, while Romney has a whole raft of them assigned to different parts of the state. At the Gingrich headquarters, mostly empty on Sunday as Romney’s was, James Wieczorek (son of a former Manchester mayor who, however, is backing Romney) is full of enthusiasm over Saturday night’s debate, and touts the campaign’s VOIP system, the same one Scott Brown used in his upset January 2010 win in Massachusetts; people can make calls at home, where they are fed specific names and messages, with headquarters getting the metrics on how many calls they have made. The old political reporter’s metric—walk into a headquarters and count the number of people on the phone bank—has apparently been rendered obsolete. Still manning a phone in the Gingrich headquarters is former Tuftonboro realtor Bob Smith, who also served with Gingrich in the U.S. House between 1984 and 1990 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990 and 1996 before losing the 2002 primary to then-Rep. John E. Sununu. Smith recalls Gingrich’s battles against the old [Republican] bulls in the House in the 1980s and says it’s still the Establishment versus Newt. He left his retirement home in Florida several weeks ago and is committed to staying on in (not too chilly, at least not yet) New Hampshire to work for Gingrich.

What about the other candidates? Rick Perry has an office in New Hampshire, but little else; Michele Bachmann doesn’t even have an office here and her website list of New Hampshire events are all datelined Iowa. Ron Paul has an office off in Concord, distant (as in other states) from those of other candidates, but he has a significant following here and could finish third or perhaps even second. The most assiduous New Hampshire challenger for Romney, active long before the Gingrich surge, has been Jon Huntsman. He is concentrating all his efforts in New Hampshire and typically speaks of Romney with derision, the Romney people think he’s still in single digits (his side says low double digits, which is actually not a whole lot different). Romney typically draws 250 people to New Hampshire town halls, McBride says; Huntsman New Hampshire manager Michael Levoff says Huntsman, who often holds three events a day (as he did Sunday) and has held many more here than Romney, gets around 75—a lot less, but not an insignificant number either, given that no one in New Hampshire two years ago ever heard of him. Coincidentally or not, those were the numbers present at events Sunday—about 250 for Romney in Hudson, just across the Merrimack River from Nashua, and about 75 for Huntsman in a high school in Swanzey, just south of Keene, in the far southwest corner of the state. But more on those events and others in a later blogpost.

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Michael Barone

Senior Political Analyst
The Washington Examiner