STRATHAM, N.H. — Mitt Romney plans to enter the race for the 2012 Republican nomination formally on Thursday at a chili cookout at Bittersweet Farm — a name that may say a lot about voters' views of the presumptive GOP front-runner.
The former Massachusetts governor is far ahead in the latest poll in this state, which traditionally holds the nation's first presidential primary. But the same survey shows most voters have not firmly settled on a candidate yet, and many aren't satisfied with the Republican field.
Romney's political problems and promise mirror the New Hampshire voters' dilemma. Folks here are familiar with him — he ran second in the state's 2008 presidential primary and served as governor of neighboring Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.
But that means people also are aware of a record with twists and turns, and many wonder if a somewhat-flawed Romney is their best bet to beat President Barack Obama.
"He's a good man, a company-saver who bailed out the Olympics," said Roy Stewart, a retired Bedford businessman. That was a reference to Romney and his partners' founding of the Bain Capital private equity firm and his efforts to turn the controversy-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City into a financial success.
While Stewart backed Romney in 2008, however, he's not sure this time. Federal deficits are worse, the economy is sluggish and there's a long list of fresh faces. Bold action is needed, Stewart said.
"I want someone who is going to stand up and say, 'I'll stop spending.' So it's only fair to see what others say," he said.
Potential candidates are flooding into the state. The first New Hampshire debate is scheduled for June 13. Thursday, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is scheduled to attend a luncheon in North Conway and to speak to Republican activists in Dover. Friday, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is to sail on the Belknap County GOP's "First in the Nation" presidential dinner cruise.
Romney, 64, who has a home in Wolfeboro, N.H., is to begin his candidacy formally at the 300-acre farm of former state House Speaker Doug Scamman and his wife, Stella.
"Mitt Romney has experience in government, non-profits and private industry. He's clearly the best qualified," Stella Scamman said.
A CNN/WMUR survey May 18-22 found Romney to be the choice of 33 percent of those who planned to vote in the GOP primary, far ahead of runner-up Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 9 percent. Next were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 7 percent, and Giuliani and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, each with 6 percent.
"Romney's pretty strong up here," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll. "He's the best known Republican, he's well-liked and he fits ideologically with the state."
He's also the most prolific fundraiser among Republican candidates. His Las Vegas-based National Call Day on May 16 generated $10.25 million in contributions, and he's expected to be well ahead of other contenders when official campaign treasury numbers are released next month.
But the poll also offered this sobering footnote: 87 percent of Republican primary voters had no idea who they'd vote for, and 43 percent were somewhat or very dissatisfied with the candidates so far. The poll surveyed 347 potential GOP voters; margin of error was plus or minus 5 points.
Even if Romney wins New Hampshire next winter, he's hardly a sure bet to maintain the momentum. A national CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey May 24-26 of 473 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents had Giuliani leading with 16 percent, followed by Romney at 15 percent. The margin of error was 4.5 percentage points.
The health care issue clearly is dogging Romney. The Massachusetts plan he signed into law is widely regarded as a model for the 2010 federal health care law, which will require almost everyone to obtain coverage by 2014, and which most Republicans deride as "Obamacare." Romney tried last month to explain how states have unique needs and interests and should not be bound by a "power grab by the federal government to put in a place a one-size-fits-all plan across the nation."
Still, his health care history remains "somewhat of a political liability," said Chris Buck, the Republican chairman in Dover.
Jane Aitken of Bedford, who's active in the conservative grassroots Tea Party movement, saw Romney's support of a health care mandate as an ongoing problem that his speech did not resolve.
"The word 'mandate' does not go over well with Tea Party people," she said.
Stella Scamman was unconcerned. "He made a good effort to solve health care in Massachusetts," she said. "We all think this is a state issue."
When Romney visits the state's southeastern corner Thursday, he's likely to find a similar debate everywhere, and soft support even among its backers.
"I have issues with Romney. He came out and supported that health care plan, said Jerry DeLemus, chairman of the conservative Granite State Patriots group, who was discussing politics Wednesday at Dover's La Festa Brick & Brew Restaurant.
State Rep. Michael Weeden agreed, but argued that the priority is electing a Republican president.
"I'm more like a tea party conservative, but I see Romney as electable. He can win the independents," Weeden said — and as a legislator, "I see how people can make mistakes when they vote."
Still, Weeden added, while he prefers Romney now, check back in a few months.
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