LANCASTER, N.H. | Standing atop a makeshift soapbox in the parking lot of a farm supply store, Mitt Romney made sure to highlight the members of his traveling army, starting with Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former Gov. John H. Sununu - two of this state’s most well-known and well-liked political figures.
He also pulled up Ray Burton, a North Country kingmaker, as well as Herb Richardson and John Gallus, who on Thursday became the 74th and 75th state lawmakers to back the former Massachusetts governor’s presidential bid.
The episode, which played out against the White Mountains, has been a recurring theme in the first two days of the former Massachusetts governor’s three-day “Earn It” bus tour through New Hampshire, where he’s also teamed up with former Sen. Judd Gregg and Jennifer Horn, a conservative activist and two-time congressional candidate.
The support is emblematic of the ground operation that Mr. Romney has continued to cultivate since his disappointing loss in the state’s first-in-the-nation primary four years ago.
“Clearly, Romney has the Cadillac of ground operations,” said Dante Scalia, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “He has had the most time to put it together, he has had the most mail, and they probably have the most elaborate vote-contact list. So they will likely get their vote out.”
The Romney camp is banking on it paying off in the Granite State, where some Republican insiders say the fledgling political operation here of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich could struggle to hold him up if he comes limping out of the Iowa caucuses, which kick off the nomination contest Jan. 3.
“I think organization is something that gets overlooked by people who follow the race, and this is not going to be a contest that gets decided in January or even February,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, told The Washington Times outside a campaign stop here. “It is really important that if you hope to emerge as the nominee that you have a strength of organization that can carry you through all the many contests that will be occurring next year - not just the first two, three or four, and we feel we have that.”
Roughly 2 1/2 weeks from the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary, a good ground game can make the difference in these sorts of contests, where turnout can be limited. Polls now show that Mr. Romney trails Mr. Gingrich nationally, but sits atop a big lead in New Hampshire and, according to the latest Rasmussen Reports survey, snagged the top spot from Mr. Gingrich in Iowa.
With that as a backdrop, Mr. Romney’s army of surrogates reminded voters at various campaign stops Thursday that the former Massachusetts governor is the most electable candidate in the field.
“I’m scared to death that as a party we understand we need to nominate someone who can not only run a good race, but win,” Mr. Sununu said, before slipping in a dig at Mr. Gingrich. “You don’t make things work with smart quips.”
In addition to the big-name endorsements, the Romney team says they’ve made more than 245,000 phone calls, knocked on more than 35,000 doors and distributed more than 13,000 signs.
“We have done an awful lot of work to identify the vote and turn them out, and we are ready to roll these next three weeks,” said Jim Merrill, New Hampshire state director for the Romney camp.
But the race is far from over, and his rivals have no plans to cede the state to Mr. Romney.
Both the camps of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who was endorsed by the Concord Monitor newspaper Thursday, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas say they are in it to win it and have developed well-oiled political machines.
“The only candidate that can come close to matching us in the ground is Mitt Romney, but what he has in establishment backing, we more than make up for in grass-roots enthusiasm,” said Jesse Benton, the Paul campaign’s spokesman.