HILLSBORO, N.H. — Rep. Michele Bachmann leads the House Tea Party Caucus, but for New Hampshire tea partyers, Rep. Ron Paul appears to be the GOP presidential candidate of choice.
The congressman from Texas torched his competition in a straw poll of taxpayer activists.
Mr. Paul’s strong showing in the straw poll at last weekend’s Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers (CNHT) gathering is another reminder of how Mrs. Bachmann’s path to victory here is murkier than in Iowa, where her reputation as a religious conservative and tea party leader is proving to be a natural fit.
“I think she does have a problem,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican powerbroker in New Hampshire who said the winner of his state’s primary will need to break out of that mold. “In this race, you already have three or four people who’ve tried to gather a constituency that isn’t that large to begin with; it probably doesn’t break 20 to 25 percent of the electorate. So you have to get outside that constituency — especially in New Hampshire.”
Mrs. Bachmann, who formally announced her candidacy late last month, has ascended in national polls. A Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday showed her support “zooming” from 6 percent to 14 percent, good enough for second place behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 25 percent in the same poll.
She is the front-runner in Iowa, where polls suggest she is on the same political wavelength as self-identified tea partyers and religious conservatives.
But to win the nomination, Republicans said, she will have to broaden her appeal beyond those voters or risk repeating the performance of 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor won the Iowa caucuses on the strength of his social conservative leanings, but he came in third in New Hampshire. His campaign petered out as the primary calendar continued.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s winner, Sen. John McCain, eventually won the GOP nomination by appealing to voters nationwide on a range of national security, pro-life, fiscal and electability issues.
The structure of the two contests matters, too. Iowa’s caucuses attract committed GOP activists willing to turn out for several hours on a usually frigid January night. In New Hampshire, voters go to the polls throughout the day just as with any other election. So while the state has less than half the population of Iowa, turnout can be double that of the caucuses.
“There is a night-and-day difference between Iowa and New Hampshire,” Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas said, adding that New Hampshire voters like to meet candidates multiple times.
“In New Hampshire, it’s, ‘I want to talk to you, know what you say and make sure it’s the same thing you say the third time I meet you,’ ” he said.
Mr. Gatsas said that while most of the field has reached out to him, Mrs. Bachmann has not. He also said he didn’t get the sense she had laid much groundwork in the state’s largest city.
Mrs. Bachmann’s campaign didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Some New Hampshire voters got their first look at her in March when she confused the state’s role in the Revolutionary War with that of neighboring Massachusetts, saying the Granite State was “where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord.”
But the mother of five rebounded from the gaffe with a strong showing at the presidential debate at St. Anslem College last month, winning praise from many state Republicans, who said she likely helped erase some lingering doubts about whether she was ready for prime time.
“We all know she is a huge proponent of getting back to the constitutional values, small government, and she understands spending is out of control,” said Jack Kimball, state GOP chairman. “I think the message she is putting out is resonating.”
Her debate performance and surge in the polls have led to speculation that she can be the “anyone-but-Romney” candidate, taking over the mantle of the hard-line conservative in the race.
The Democratic National Committee has not taken the same interest in Mrs. Bachmann that it has in Mr. Romney, but media scrutiny is increasing — particularly on questions about how the clinic her husband runs in Minnesota treats gay patients.
Her GOP opponents are beginning to take shots at her experience. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last weekend, called her record of accomplishment in Congress “nonexistent.”
“The downside for someone in the legislative body is that it’s hard to discern what kind of executive leadership skills they bring to the office,” said Ovide Lamontagne, a conservative powerbroker in the state who is flirting with a gubernatorial bid next year.
Mrs. Bachmann faces other challenges, too. She is trying to break through the glass ceiling to become the first female Republican nominee, and to become the first House member to jump directly into the White House since James A. Garfield pulled off the feat in 1880.
Joe McQuaid, the influential publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, called Mrs. Bachmann a “strong” and “attractive” candidate, but predicted that if Texas Gov. Rick Perry enters the race, he’ll be the conservative alternative next year.
“Unless Gov. Perry is a real dud, I think he is going to get a lot of that conservative action that is non-Romney,” Mr. McQuaid said.
Mr. Lamontagne said that the governors in the race — Mr. Romney, Mr. Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and perhaps Mr. Perry — can talk about decisions they made in the executive branch.
“You don’t have that benefit as a person in the legislative branch of government,” he said. “So, that’s a little bit of a tough sell to overcome. [Mrs. Bachmann] has to show people what she would do as an executive.”