When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney kicks off his presidential campaign Thursday, his choice of New Hampshire says everything about the importance of the state that shattered his White House dreams in 2008 and could very well make or break his second campaign.
For the last decade, he's dominated the local airwaves there, first as governor of neighboring Massachusetts and then campaigning for president in their diners and at their backyard barbecues - and that familiarity with him makes New Hampshire a do-or-die venue for the 64-year-old former businessman.
"We always like to say you have to win in New Hampshire to go on, and it would be a huge disappointment if he were not to win New Hampshire, having spent so much time here, having a home here," said former New Hampshire House Speaker Donna Sytek, who served as an honorary co-chairwoman of Mr. Romney's 2008 campaign and plans to support the married father of five.
Mr. Romney's fate hinges on lessons he learned from his missteps in 2008, particularly pouring money and manpower into Iowa in an attempt to woo social and religious conservatives. But Iowa caucus goers never completely warmed up to the New Englander, and the state's evangelicals remained suspicious of his Mormon religion. Mr. Romney wound up finishing a disappointing second to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher.
The loss hurt Mr. Romney's momentum heading into New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary, where Sen. John McCain went on to win, delivering another serious blow to his presidential hopes.
While Mr. McCain went on to secure the party's nomination, his general-election defeat gave Mr. Romney the status of next-in-line, which has been the commonest path to the Republican presidential nomination for more than three decades.
Since then, he's worked hard to solidify his ties in New Hampshire, funneling more than $100,000 to local party committees and Republican candidates in national and local races. Polls now show Mr. Romney leading the rest of the GOP field in New Hampshire.
Mr. Romney, though, still has his work cut out for him, thanks to lingering authenticity concerns about his pivot to the right on guns, homosexuality and abortion.
He's also sure to face a barrage of questions and attacks from Democrats and Republican over the 2006 Massachusetts health care plan he signed into law as governor, which requires residents to obtain coverage and is viewed as the prelude to President Obama health care overhaul. Mr. Romney defends the Massachusetts plan and promises to repeal "Obamacare" on his first day of his presidency.
But Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire who served as an adviser to Mr. McCain in 2008, said that Mr. Romney appears to have learned from his 2008 defeat and is sending a strong message about his campaign's focus by opening it up in New Hampshire.
"This is a state that he and others have identified as critical to his success," Mr. Duprey said, pointing out that Mr. Romney has traded the large entourages he used to travel with in the past in favor of meeting voters in smaller settings and talking about the pocketbook issues that are first on their minds.
"I would say generally that the Iowa Republican Party has a much larger evangelical community and a much larger community of the social conservatives," Mr. Duprey said. "We have lots of social conservatives in the New Hampshire Republican party, but I would hazard a guess that there is no state in the country where Republicans and independents are more fixed in on the debt and deficit."
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