The former Massachusetts governor is leading in Granite State polls. He also owns a $10 million lakefront house there.
WOLFEBORO, N.H. -- Autumn is in the air in New Hampshire, which means the political rhetoric is also here, even in the tucked-away reaches of this tiny lakeside town where Mitt Romney has a summer home.
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Little pumpkins decorate the driveway, despite the fact that the lakefront property is closed up for the winter. Neighbors walk their dogs down the street where the only address is Romney's. Locals bundle up out-of-towners and take them for rides on their boats to see the Republican presidential contender's house from the water, the most spectacular view.
It's a stunning getaway destination that, in this election year, comes with a bit of a burden. As the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts and a property owner in the Granite State, Romney is the next-best thing to a favorite son (though he's not a registered voter in the state), meaning that anything less than a first-place finish in the state's first-in-the-nation primary will be read as a potentially crippling blow to his quest for his party's nomination.
Romney recently generated a flurry of unwanted headlines over plans to expand another high-priced home he owns in La Jolla, Calif., but the home he owns here is hardly a cottage. Occupying nearly 800 feet of waterfront, the view from the lake is "fabulous," said local real estate agent Kathryn Aiken. Purchased for $3 million in 1997, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader, the home is now valued at more than $10 million.
In addition to the main house, which boasts seven bedrooms and a view of Lake Winnipesaukee, the property also features a stable "with living quarters," a boat house, a beach volleyball court, and a giant trampoline -- every grandchild's dream, and the Romneys have 16 to keep happy. According to Town of Wolfeboro records, the stable house, which was valued at $250,000 when the Romneys purchased the property in 1997, is now worth $2.1 million. The lot where the stable is located alone is valued at $1.3 million, according to local tax records.
In other New Hampshire towns, such as Manchester or Concord, almost every inch of lawn space appears decorated with signs touting one presidential candidate or another. Wolfeboro residents tend not to wear their political preferences on their lawns - although the few posters that do freckle the tony landscape belong to Romney supporters. Though Romney is clearly adored by many in the hot weather haven, he isn't taking his summer neighbors' votes for granted: He held a town hall at the local Bayside Grill and Tavern in July. The area is predominantly Republican, residents say, though in 2008, President Obama came close to winning in Wolfeboro. GOP presidential nominee John McCain eked out a 2,137-2,032 victory, according to town clerk Patricia Waterman.
Town residents have only kind things to say about the Romneys, but that doesn't necessarily mean they want them in the White House. There's a pervasive fear that their quaint, quiet town might turn into a tourist haven -- as Kennebunkport, Maine, did when one of its summer residents, George H.W. Bush, became president.
Nancy Bell, who was born in Wolfeboro and works at the local high school, is worried about the security and tourists that would invade town with Romney in Washington: "The fear is there that some of the small-town character of Wolfeboro could be lost." She said she likes "that I can walk down the street and see people I know and walk into the post office and say hi" without the intrusion of strangers.
As it stands, there are about 6,000 residents in Wolfeboro year-round, but that number skyrockets to more than 20,000, by many estimates, during the summer.
Despite the fact that he's a Democrat, Paul Jenne, a Massachusetts native who owns a small store in town called Flags Over Winnipesaukee, said he wouldn't mind the White House effect on Wolfeboro. "It's fine with me the better business is," he said, taking an entrepreneurial attitude that Romney might appreciate. "And the traffic is always bad anyway."
Jenne's wife, Penny Sommer, owns a candy shop across the courtyard from his store. Once, Mitt and Ann Romney stopped there to buy candy for their grandchildren. Afterward, they headed over to Jenne's shop, where Mitt chatted with Paul about how the economy was treating his business. After the former governor left, Sommer breathlessly dashed into her husband's store gasping: "I don't know who that was, but he was just the most gorgeous man!"
Staying incognito is important to the Romneys here, and the locals seem to respect that. Karen Baker, who owns The Country Bookstore, knows Mitt Romney has been in her shop, but he slipped out before she realized who he was. "That's what people are attracted to about this town," she said. "No one is here to prove whose star shines brightest." One copy of Romney's book, No Apologies, sits on a store shelf, but Baker says she would never dare infringe on his privacy by asking him to come in and sign it for sale.
Maggie O'Reilly, who has lived in Wolfeboro since 1994, echoes that sentiment. "They're really just part of the crowd when they're here," she said. O'Reilly and her husband have spotted the Romneys at bandstand summer concerts and the local hardware store. "They are very well respected in this town," she said.
Many say the same of the Marriotts, the hotel dynasty that also owns a great deal of land in town, according to Aiken, the local real estate agent. George Romney, Mitt's father and a former Michigan governor, and J. Willard Marriott were famously great friends. Mitt Romney's little-used given first name is Willard.
"They are very, very polite," Aiken said. "Maybe it's something to do with the Mormon religion. They're all very family oriented and have a lot of strong values." There is a Mormon church in town, right on Main Street, that both families are said to attend when they are in town.
Aiken recalls seeing the Romneys at a local ice cream shop over the summer, noting that Mitt was in blue jeans and would have come off as looking like anyone else in the crowd - except for the fact that his hair was "too well coiffed." She pulled at her own long blonde hair laughing at the contrast to many of the townies. "Here, it's live free or die."
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Image credit: Sarah B. Boxer/National Journal