Politics & Government

Romney can't close sales in New Hampshire

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

HOOKSETT, N.H. — Ann Marie Banfield stood quietly on the gently sloping suburban lawn, a quizzical look on her face. She had just asked Mitt Romney whether or not he favored a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine crisis.

Romney gave her a lengthy answer, explaining the need to follow a road map to peace. It was classic Romney: Factual, delivered quickly and full of nuance.

Banfield's reaction was also typical of what Romney got from voters on his latest swing through the nation's first primary state: Ambivalence.

"There's a lot I agree with him about, but I still have questions. He just seems like a typical politician," said Banfield, a Bedford homemaker.

Romney, a four-year governor of Massachusetts until January, has long been a familiar presence in this state, where residents get a lot of their news from Boston media — and half the people seem to have either migrated from Massachusetts and still work or shop there.

But as he traveled through New Hampshire last week, Romney didn't seem to stoke the kind of passion that might be expected of someone so familiar, and who's built a persistent lead in early New Hampshire polls.

He led the GOP field with 27.2 percent support, according to an average of six New Hampshire polls since Sept. 26 compiled by RealClearPolitics.com. His closest rival was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, with 20.5 percent support, followed by Sen. John McCain of Arizona with 16.8 percent. Everyone else was in single digits.

But Romney's support in New Hampshire seems to have flattened out.

"Romney's trying to hold on," said Wayne Lesperance, associate professor of political science at New England College in Hennicker, N.H. "He doesn't seem to be advancing anywhere."

Romney seems unfazed.

"I was unknown in Iowa and New Hampshire when I announced my candidacy," he maintained. His poll lead, Romney said, "is an indication the message is connecting."

But people at Romney's rallies suggested that may not be so. One reason is vintage New Hampshire: It's only October.

"He's clearly a man of high moral character, but it's just too early to say who I might vote for," explained Lynda Savage, a Manchester dietician.

Then there's the matter of Romney himself. Personality matters in this small state, and Manchester nurse Mary Lussier's reaction after seeing Romney Thursday was echoed by others.

"I don't know him yet," she said.

That discomfort is at the root of the ambivalence that many feel about Romney. He's not quite conservative enough for many conservatives, but too conservative for moderates.

He tries to woo crowds by stressing three major points: He'll help build strong families, a strong economy and a strong military.

The family talk gets him his highest marks. Romney recalled his family ties when he visited the home of Rod and Patricia Spencer in Hooksett, a tony Manchester suburb where the houses are on half-acre lots and the pastel-colored leaves in the backyards look like postcard snapshots.

Romney made his way into the sunken family room and stood in front of the fireplace, casually telling the 40 people gathered around him how "We need to teach kids before they have babies to get married."

A lot of people liked what they heard.

"He impressed me. I like him and his family and his family life," said Brenda Lombardozzi, a Hooksett homemaker.

The topic was more the economy at another Romney stop, the Elliot Hospital in Manchester. In a crowded downstairs conference room, he touted his success at helping craft a mandatory health-insurance plan in Massachusetts.

(Interestingly, he's dropped the mandatory part as he outlines his new national plan, saying states should have latitude to decide how to proceed. Mandatory government edicts play better in Massachusetts than in Republican primary states.)

His views won him another round of mixed reviews — these are folks who want badly to see the system reformed, but also know how tough that can be.

"I like the concept of his plan, but how is it going to work?" asked Tina Reynolds, a registered nurse.

Romney took some time to explain the plan, but spent more time contrasting it with one proposed recently by the Democratic frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. Hers is structured much like Romney's Massachusetts plan, but he now says hers will put the government in the health care business like never before.

"I don't want the bureaucrats who ran Katrina running health care," he said, a distortion of Clinton's plan, but typical of campaign rhetoric from Republicans.

War and peace got somewhat less time — the Iraq war's not popular here. Michelle Cunha got up at the Manchester forum and asked Romney about it; he explained why he thought the U.S. troop surge was working.

Afterward, Cunha remained undecided.

"I'm going to take a comprehensive look at everyone," she said. "It's going to be a gut feeling."

That was the prevailing mood wherever Romney went.

"I like what he said," said Arlene Longfellow, after hearing Romney at the Spencers' house. "Put me down as a maybe."

Why not just commit? What is it about this guy that gives people pause?

Banfield stood on the Spencers' lawn and tried to explain. Her sentences stopped and started. . . . Romney was charming, she said. He answered her question thoroughly and politely . . . but something was missing.

"I just question whether he has a solid understanding of the (Middle East) issue," she said, or if he's only reciting some well-rehearsed lines.

"There's a lot I agree with him about," Banfield said. "But I still have questions."

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