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In N.H., ambivalence on Romney

Past stances fuel lingering doubts

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MANCHESTER, N.H. | On paper, Mitt Romney is the favorite to win next year's GOP primary in New Hampshire - he ran a respectable second here in 2008 to eventual nominee John McCain, and as the 2012 cycle begins, he's the clear front-runner in a crowded field of would-be contenders.

So why do so many grass-roots voters say they still have doubts about the former governor from neighboring Massachusetts less than a year before the first-in-the-nation primary?

Granite State Republicans have lingering concerns about the Massachusetts health care legislation Mr. Romney signed and doubts about his commitment to pro-life and gun ownership issues. Some even question the depth of his appreciation for the legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Gary Brown, a 56-year-old businessman, said he likes Mr. Romney's business experience but gives him the dreaded tag of RINO," or "Republican in name only."

John Moscillo, a 39-year-old real estate agent, said Mr. Romney reminds him of a "used-car salesman" and "will tell you what you want to hear."

State Rep. Laurie P. Pettengill, a 2008 Romney volunteer who rode the tea party wave into the New Hampshire Statehouse last year, said the former Massachusetts governor "doesn't resonate."

"I love the guy, but I just think that the average American doesn't connect with him," Ms. Pettengill said. "I think to a lot of people he says what they want to hear, and it doesn't come from his heart."

Mr. Romney has gone only so far as to form an exploratory committee, and New Hampshire primary voters are open to alternatives. They are curious to hear more from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Libertarians are energized by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, social conservatives like former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and tea partyers are excited about Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Others shower compliments on Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and enjoy Donald Trump's no-holds-barred style.

Republicans say it's natural to be attracted to a new face, especially when Mr. Romney is so familiar. As chief executive in Massachusetts, he dominated New England political news coverage for four years.

Hurting Mr. Romney the most are the lingering concerns from 2008, when he spent much of his time explaining the record he amassed in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country.

"He has work to do, and he has to really decide where he is on those issues and how to talk to them," said state Sen. Tom DeBlois, a Republican who supported Mr. Romney in 2008. "I'm sure he will develop that as time goes on."

Still, polls show Mr. Romney is the man to beat. A recent WMUR Granite State Poll by the University of New Hampshire found that nearly 70 percent of likely Republican primary voters hold a favorable opinion of Mr. Romney and 36 percent would support him - putting him ahead of the rest of the field.

"I think people in New Hampshire see him as a viable and respectable Republican," said Rep. Frank C. Guinta, a Republican former mayor of Manchester and one of the state's two U.S. House members.

History suggests that Mr. Romney has reasons to be concerned. In mid-May 2007, he topped the Republican primary field in New Hampshire, according to the RealClearPolitics.com average of polls. He held that lead for more than seven months until a week before Republicans went to the polls and delivered a 6-percentage-point victory to Mr. McCain, an Arizonan.

Mr. Romney's advantages include his personal wealth and the fact that he has kept his organization in New Hampshire strong. He has cemented political ties by funneling more than $100,000 to local Republican Party committees and candidates in national and local races.

"Give credit where credit is due: Romney's organization of activists and volunteers have stuck together," said B.J. Perry, director of the state Republican Party during the campaign season last year. "His people on the ground here have continued to build working relationships."

DanteJ.Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor, said Mr. Romney also likely learned from his missteps in 2008, when he pivoted to the right on social issues in an attempt to woo voters in Iowa who questioned his conservative credentials. This time, Mr. Scala said, Mr. Romney will play up his business acumen as a New England Rockefeller Republican - a message that should dovetail well with New Hampshire voters who are interested in talking about fiscal rather than social issues.

"I think you have a lot of New Hampshire Republicans who are probably saying to themselves, 'It's about time we've stopped talking about abortion and religious issues and we got back to what conservatism is all about, and that is being tight with the dollar,' " Mr. Scala said.

Some activists, though, still have a tough time squaring Mr. Romney's tack to the right on abortion and gun issues in 2008 against his tack to the left when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994. During that race, he distanced himself from former President Ronald Reagan in a debate by saying, "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush, I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."

Romney consultant James Merrill brushed aside questions about Mr. Romney's candor. "Mitt Romney is one of the most authentic and able people that I know," he said.

Mr. Merrill said the campaign is focused on 2012, when Mr. Romney's business background should attract voters most concerned about pocketbook issues.

It's too early to tell whether primary voters think Mr. Romney's pluses outweigh his minuses, but the elephant in the room is clearly the Massachusetts health care legislation, which conservatives view as the prelude to President Obama's national health care overhaul.

"I think 'Romneycare' is his downfall because that was the precursor to 'Obamacare,' " said Gary Grahan, a 66-year-old grass-roots activist who described Mr. Romney as a "flip-flopper."

At a presidential forum last month, Mr. Romney danced around a question about the state health care plan by telling hundreds of grass-roots activists that his "experiment wasn't perfect" and leveling criticism at the president for not seeking his advice on how his plan failed. "Some things worked, some didn't, and some things I'd change," he said, adding that the "one thing I would never do is to usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover."

The question will continue to dog the former governor, and activists here suggest that their decision could hinge on the broader concern that he is not genuine.

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