DERRY, N.H. — New Hampshire's Republican voters, who traditionally have a big voice in whom the party nominates for president since they hold the first primary, are mostly still looking for a candidate they can passionately support. Monday night's debate didn't stop their search.
While GOP loyalists and independents at restaurants and shopping centers Tuesday had warm praise for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and wanted to know more about Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, they said the field remained wide open.
Typical was the exchange between Ron Cain, who stopped by Blake's Restaurant in Manchester early Tuesday for breakfast, and waitress Elaine Deschuiteneer.
"Apparently Romney did the best," Deschuiteneer said, assessing the first debate of the 2012 presidential cycle in this state.
"I do like Mitt," said Cain, an unemployed hospitality worker who was on his way to a job interview. "But I like Michele, too. I really need to see what they're all about. This is only the first round."
Romney, who's far ahead in statewide polls, tried hard Tuesday to generate some momentum, visiting two restaurants and two stores and taking a walk through downtown Derry. While people were friendly, virtually all were reluctant to commit to his candidacy.
"I'm open-minded," Manchester letter carrier Butch Broutzos said. "I don't feel like I know too much about any of 'em," added Diane Bielizna, a retired Hooksett respiratory therapist. Romney visited restaurants Tuesday where both were eating.
The widespread reticence is somewhat unusual, even at this early stage of the campaign, because better-known candidates such as Romney tend to have devoted followings that stay with them for years.
Romney governed neighboring Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, and he has a home in Wolfeboro. He finished second to John McCain with 31.6 percent in the 2008 New Hampshire presidential primary.
Voters are unusually cautious this year for two reasons: They're very concerned about the economy, and they're convinced that the right Republican can beat President Barack Obama. So they're taking their time, looking over the field and entertaining the idea that it may not be complete.
While seven candidates debated Monday night, almost that many others were suggesting that they, too, may enter the race.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has been a frequent visitor to the state and is expected to declare his candidacy Wednesday. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin were in New Hampshire earlier this month. So was Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, a leading conservative voice in Congress. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also are said to be newly weighing bids after discouraging such speculation earlier.
While all except Giuliani and Palin are largely unfamiliar figures, people say they'll listen.
"Politics is an ever-changing scene, and you have to have the right candidate for the right scene," said Warren Martinez, a Hudson financial adviser.
Frances Irzyk, an Allenstown retiree, found Romney "very good" in the debate, but was intrigued by Bachmann, who at the debate announced her intention to run. "She's a woman, and she understands us better," Irzyk said.
The economy dominates almost every political conversation. Though New Hampshire's jobless rate in April was 4.9 percent, the latest data available and well below the national average, people here are worried.
Mary Ellen Zarba, who met Romney as she was walking in Derry on Tuesday, described how her husband had to take a job in Saudi Arabia in 2009 because he couldn't get a local job.
She didn't blame her plight on Obama. "Anyone who's president is doing what he thinks is best," Zarba said. But she wants her family, which includes three children, ages 10 to 21, intact again.
Romney talked about his experience in the private sector and tried hard to show empathy. Zarba was pleased but not overwhelmed.
"He seems very sincere and I hope that's the case," she said. "But they all promise a lot."
No one thinks any single candidate has the magic answer. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is offering a series of broad tax cuts, but few see that as the only solution.
The right candidate is likely to be someone with a sense that he know what he's doing, said Dick Kenyon, the manager of Benson Lumber & Hardware in Derry.
"You need a candidate who will say, 'This is going to take time,' " he said. "Obama promised too much. We need someone who is not going to simply be swayed by public opinion."
Romney visited Kenyon's store Tuesday, and another across the street, and said, "If I get the job (as president), I'll make sure your business gets better." The founder of the Bain Capital private equity firm held a news conference in an adjacent parking lot and touted his credentials: "Words are easy. Experience takes a long time to get."
He wouldn't criticize any opponents, trying to take what's become his familiar above-the-battle stance.
But like the rest of the crowded GOP field, his sales job is far from complete.
As Cain put it, "It's just awfully early in the political season."
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