I'm soon headed to New Hampshire for the final days before the primary, but I figured I'd weigh in with a quick thought to add to Walter Shapiro's comprehensive assessment of the situation on the ground there, and Noam's argument that Tuesday's election does matter after all.
Here it is: I'm having a hard time seeing how Rick Santorum substantially closes the gap with Mitt Romney with so little time to spare. Not necessarily because Mitt has a house in New Hampshire and was governor next door, the factors that the pundits like to mention -- no, those assets did not keep him from being embarrassed by John McCain four years ago. New Hampshire voters have not formed some special bond with this man -- if anything, those inclined to see through him have had more time to establish that transparent view. But they have, I would argue, been worn down by him -- by the sheer deep-pocketed persistence I described in this recent piece. For several years now, he's shown up at all the parades, the county party committee dinners, the employee appreciation day at the lumber yard way up in Berlin. My assessment of the New Hampshire GOP electorate, which I spent two years covering in the late 1990s, is that they're basically ready to say, "OK, OK, I'll do it."
My utterly unscientific sample to support this guess: Fran Wendelboe is now officially supporting Mitt Romney. As I mentioned in that earlier piece, Wendelboe is a longtime leader of the state's social conservatives, a former state representative who made an unsuccessful attempt a few years ago to become state party chairman and proceeded to set up a sort of shadow party for training conservative candidates. In past years, she has endorsed the likes of Phil Gramm, Dan Quayle and Elizabeth Dole, though she left the latter after being appalled to learn that Dole was in favor of gun safety locks. I mentioned in the piece that she was, to her great surprise, considering Romney, though she was far from making a decision. Well, now she's made it. "My number one goal," she told me, "is that I want someone who can beat Obama. It's the right decision, as far as staying power and organization and the ability to raise money and appeal to undeclared voters on the national stage." But what about Romney's flip flops on abortion, an issue of utmost concern to Wendelboe? "I've come to understand that politicians have fundamental changes of opinion," she said. "I was fundamentally anti-gambling, then last term I said this is stupid, it’s everywhere, why be crazy and say 'we're pure, we don't have gambling,'" she said. She was also reassured by the fact that Romney was a staunch abortion opponent when he was a young lay leader in the Mormon Church, before he ran as an essentially pro-choice candidate in 1994 and 2002. "I think that he started out that way," she said. "My kids, I raised them in the church, then they had a falling out. People go through stages, and I strongly hope and expect they’ll go back to the church and it’ll become a major part of their life. Real life happens and people got through those phases. Does it mean that their entire life spent going to church was meaningless and wrong? No, they just hit a bump."
What about Santorum, a natural fit for her politics? "I don't have any problem with Santorum. He's clean, clean-shaven, fresh faced." The only downside, she said, was his decision to back the moderate Arlen Specter over the arch-conservative Pat Toomey in the 2004 Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania. But how is endorsing a moderate worse than actually having been a moderate, as Romney was? She was insistent. "That really showed a lack of judgment on his part," she said of the Specter endorsement. But more than that, she said, was the question of Santorum's viability. "I'm not sure his momentum is going to continue. By biggest concern is his ability to to raise money and build a national organization."
Again, just one person. But in a small state like New Hampshire, an influential one. I may have to eat my hat next Wednesday -- I generally stay out of the predictions game -- but it's really hard to me to see how Santorum builds a fast wave in New Hampshire without the likes of natural allies like Fran Wendelboe.