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Is N.H. Really Going To Give Mitt A Pass?

SOMERSWORTH, N.H. -- At several points the past couple days, I thought of a great line in the Concord Monitor's "un-endorsement" of Mitt Romney in late 2007, when, in advance of its endorsement of John McCain, it ran an entire editorial specifically opposing Romney: "When New Hampshire partisans are asked to defend the state's first-in-the-nation primary, we talk about our ability to see the candidates up close, ask tough questions and see through the baloney. If a candidate is a phony, we assure ourselves and the rest of the world, we'll know it."

In 2008, the state's voters complied, dealing Romney a debilitating blow from which his campaign never recovered. But Tuesday, if the polls are to be believed, they are going to give Romney a pass, and send him on his way. What gives? The explanations are obvious. The field is weaker -- there is no McCain, who had a singular bond with New Hampshire voters. Voters are especially focused on nominating the Republican who can defeat the loathed Obama. My personal theory, as readers know, is that Romney has simply worn the state's voters down with his sheer persistence and doling out of campaign cash, all the way down the ladder to county sheriffs and district attorneys.

Still, it is worth stepping back for a moment and taking stock of the fact that the state that so enjoys setting establishment favorites -- and Iowa caucus winners -- back on their heels is on the verge of giving its imprimatur to the ultimate establishment guy. That is certainly the framing that Romney's rivals have resorted to in the closing days here, imploring voters to hold true to their reputation. Monday night it was Rick Santorum, speaking in this frayed mill down on the Maine border, who invoked state's tradition for rewarding underdogs and "bottom-up citizen participation" in his favor. "You're going to send a message about what your state wants. Are you going to send the message that the guy that spent the most money and the most time and has run the most times here in New Hampshire, that that's the guy you want because he's just been around and it's his turn? Look at the guys that we voted on when it was their turn. Jerry Ford, it was his turn...let's put up Bob Dole, because it's his turn...let's put up John McCain, because it's his turn. Those moderates who can win. Those moderates who can win -- according to who? According to the national media and according to the experts who don't want a conservative and don't want a Republican. Ladies and gentlemen, we win elections  when our people are excited about who to vote for."

He went on further in this vein a few minutes later. "If you're into the establishment, we know how you should vote. If you want the same old story, if that's what you want, you know how to vote in New Hampshire. I remind you, in 1980, when we had another critical election, when we had another Democratic president running the country into the ground...we had a choice in the Republican primary. We had the establishment who the money was behind and the mainstream was behind in the Republican Party and that was George H.W. Bush and he won Iowa. But when New Hampshire people, moderate New Hampshire, moderate to liberal New Hampshire, when they voted, the people here in New Hampshire said, we're going to vote for what America needs, not what we're being told to do by people with money and power in the Republican Party...and you voted for Ronald Reagan. And if it wasn't for New Hampshire, Ronald Reagan would never have been president. Think about what you're doing and the vote that you cast and the message you send out of New Hampshire."

Santorum certainly had the atmospherics right to be making this sort of underdog case. Yesterday, in the nearby town of Rochester, I saw Romney appear at the town's handsome opera house with a star-studded cast that included Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Tim Pawlenty. There was a huge flag behind the stage and the usual mega-sound system. Santorum's event this evening was in the function room of an American Legion hall opposite a laundromat. The mike wasn't working, making it hard to hear the candidate. The crowd was decidedly rougher-hewn than the one at Romney's event -- the best-dressed person may have been the 9-year-old kid looking sharp in a clip-on tie and sweater vest (not in tribute to Santorum -- he just likes to dress up, his parents said.)

It was exactly the blue-collar demographic that Santorum hoped could carry him to a surprise showing in the state, as it had Pat Buchanan in 1996. (There was even a nun in a habit in attendance -- not something I've seen at any Romney events.) He laid on the conservative populism even thicker than I'd seen him do in Iowa, going on at length about lost manufacturing jobs and the depredations of "big business" that is in cahoots with the "insidious nature of the left," whose penchant for over-regulation abets the very big corporations the left claims to decry. He added a further jab in this regard after the event, when I asked him what he made of Romney's unfortunate remark earlier Monday that he "like[s] being able to fire people who provide services to me." "I don't like to fire people," Santorum told me. "I would rather work with people to make sure they can" get better at what they do.

But there's a problem in this populist approach: There simply aren't as many of these sorts of voters in New Hampshire as there were in 1996. There was a telling moment where Santorum was giving his usual spiel about the Brookings study showing that people who graduate from high school, get married before having kids and hold a job are almost guaranteed not to be in poverty. He said that he wasn't sure what New Hampshire's graduation rate was, but that he was sure it was a lot higher than people realized. But a local woman next to me whispered aloud that, in fact, the state's graduation rate was the highest in the country. (According to this article, its rate is one of the highest in the country and its rate of improvement is the best.) Yes, there are still plenty of hard-luck towns like Somersworth that are struggling with problems like high school dropouts. But they make up an ever-smaller share of the state electorate. After the event, I spoke with Santorum supporter Callie Laverty, who noted how much more liberal and prosperous New Hampshire seemed to her after returning to the state after many years in Cincinnati. "There's a real liberal context here now," she said. "People are more like, 'we're going with the flow.'"

I also chatted with some of the local lawmakers supporting Santorum, and asked them why Romney was on the verge of skating out of the state untouched. "The good old boy network is supporting him as hard as they possibly can," said state Rep. Susan DeLemus. Karen Testerman, head of a local conservative group called First Principles, noted that Romney backer John Sununu, the former governor and George H.W. Bush chief of staff, had urged Republicans not to vilify each other during his recent stint as state party chairman, but had then proceeded to do just that on Romney's behalf in recent weeks. State Sen. Fenton Groen said the problem was that the media had not given Santorum the time of day until he finished in a tie in Iowa, leaving the impression that he had not spent any time in New Hampshire when he had in fact been in the state many times in recent months. "Reporters are asking me why he wasn't spending more time in New Hampshire, and I say, 'Where have you been?'"

Polls have shown plenty of voters here are still undecided, so who knows what happens Tuesday night. But it's sure looking like we're going to be hearing a lot more such talk in the next couple days, trying to make sense of how Mitt Romney finally won over the state that likes to string up the pelts of politicians just like him.