KEENE, N.H. — New Hampshire Republicans are more passionate about their issues and causes — the federal debt, big government and health care — than they've been in a long time. But they're having trouble summoning much passion for the potential 2012 presidential candidates.
With mere months to go until the state's first-in-the-nation primary, weekend appearances by several GOP prospects gave party faithful a chance to shop around.
Five appeared at a Friday night Manchester forum before 600 activists. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the front-runner, campaigned at a gas station. Three others participated in a conservative forum Saturday with about 150 people at a Manchester university to discuss economic issues.
This much was clear: "People want fire in the belly now more than ever," said state GOP Chairman Jack Kimball.
But they're not sure yet who's got it. "We feel there's a long way to go," said Anthony Guinta, the president of a Pittsfield-based renewable energy company.
"The substance of what we're hearing (from potential candidates) is not very different. They seem to have similar policy positions," said Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield. "But we're looking for the next Ronald Reagan."
Republicans want change, and lots of it, and they're carefully shopping for someone eager to fight for the politically risky sacrifices they say are desperately needed.
"This feeling people have of entitlement to everything has to be broken," said Dawn Lincoln, a Westmoreland activist and stay-at-home mother.
New Hampshire Republicans matter, because the state's presidential primary is traditionally the nation's first, where presidential candidates are closely scrutinized and often made or broken. From 1952 to 1992, no one had become president without first winning the primary, and a long list of challengers gained instant credibility and momentum from good showings here.
McClatchy talked to about 35 New Hampshire Republican activists and strategists, and found most thinking similarly about the state of the race:
_ Prospects. With President Barack Obama's approval ratings dropping — he's down to 44 percent in the latest WMUR-Granite State poll, in a state he won in 2008 — people see a real chance to win and are willing to overlook a nominee with a flaw or two. "They've been out of office," said House Speaker William O'Brien. "They want a winner."
_ Sacrifice. Folks warmly praised the budget blueprint offered recently by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which calls for a dramatic revamping of Medicare and Medicaid. "We've got to get rid of this notion that Social Security and Medicare are panaceas. They were never intended to be retirement funds," said Tom Theall, a Newport engineer.
_ Social issues vs. economic issues. Republicans care about curbing abortion and about other non-economic issues, but rarely put them at the top of their lists. "They're all equally important," said Richard Bloom, a Hooksett conservative activist. But he's more concerned "when it cost me $42 to fill up my gas tank at $4.04 a gallon . . . the economy is something we need to fix."
_ Romney. "He's certainly the frontrunner right now," said Wayne MacDonald, state GOP vice chairman. But almost every activist's view of Romney, who finished second in the state's GOP primary in 2008, includes concern about health care, and at the Friday forum, he was asked about his history. As governor, he signed into law in 2006 a requirement that almost everyone in Massachusetts obtain coverage, widely considered a model for the federal health care law, which most Republicans hate.
Jennifer Horn, Nashua-based president of We The People, a grassroots conservative group, said Romney can't escape the health care questions. "It's a challenge he has to overcome every day he's campaigning," she said.
Romney's other task may be harder to control, a problem that plagues early front-runners — activists are still looking . . . At least seven other potential major candidates are working the state, and a debate is scheduled for June 13.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty stirs some interest, but he's barely known. "Spell it," said Joseph Feuer, a Marlow activist, when asked about Pawlenty.
Some of the more conservative candidates are also being warmly received. Sue Carroll, an Atkinson business owner, likes former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's "very courageous fight " against late-term abortion.
But economic issues matter most, and people are eager for dramatic action. Horn, a 46-year-old mother of five, thought the Ryan plan "may not go far enough."
With the nation facing an estimated $7 trillion in new deficits in the next 10 years, and the national debt already near $14.3 trillion, she sees a future economy so tepid her children will have trouble finding good-paying jobs.
Horn's met one on one with five candidates, and is inclined now to support a current or former governor because of their experience confronting big fiscal problems. She was "very impressed with Pawlenty," and won't rule out others.
But typical of the activists' mood is that of Jane Aitken, a tea party activist from Bedford who calls herself "a conservative first, then a Republican."
"I'll likely find something I don't like about all of them," said Aitken, who backed Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, in 2008 but has no 2012 preference at this time. "It's really too early to make a decision."
Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, sees the race eventually becoming a three-way struggle between Romney, what Smith calls a "Fox News," or celebrity candidate such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and someone voters see as having a "credible record," such as Pawlenty.
Also in that third group could be Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who hasn't yet made a decision whether to run, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has been quietly picking up support in this state and is scheduled to give the commencement address at Southern New Hampshire University on May 21.
But as the Friday night forum illustrated, the candidates' views are not all that different. What will separate them is the kind of fire they'll incite among these Republicans.
"People really, really want someone who is going to get out there and fight for their cause," said Kimball. "And so the way the message is delivered is going to be really important."
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