Romney's New Hampshire Makeover

After a disappointing 2008 performance, decided to spend less time and money in New Hampshire. Was it the right call?

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BEDFORD, N.H. -- The steaks were thick and bloody. Mounds of potatoes were mashed with garlic and butter. The crab cakes -- to die for: "Sweet Jesus," a white-haired woman whispered to Mitt Romney, "they melt in my mouth like cotton candy." Twenty-one plates, 21 artery-clotting meals, and 20 of New Hampshire's most important Republicans were gathered around a table at the invitation of Jim Merrill, Romney's political fixer in the state. Each guest had worked against Romney in the 2008 presidential campaign or had sat out the race.

Which is exactly why Romney came to see them at a steakhouse here early in the summer of 2010. He wanted their help in 2012. "I'm looking at this again," Romney told them. "What would you say I did right? What would you say I did wrong?"

"Let me start with your tie," responded Steve Duprey, the irreverent former state GOP chairman who backed Sen. John McCain over Romney four years ago. "Lose it." Laughter filled the room. The ice was broken. The advice flowed. Duprey said, "And another thing ..."

From that gathering in 2010 and a more exclusive session six months later in La Jolla, Calif., emerged the outlines of the cautious, disciplined strategy that has put Romney on the verge of accomplishing a historic sweep: Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary.

No other nonincumbent candidate has accomplished that feat since the Iowa caucuses took their current form in 1980. The winner in Iowa traditionally gets a cool reception in New Hampshire, where independent-minded voters hate to rubber-stamp anything.

Another obstacle to the sweep is the huge differences in the two states' electorates: GOP voters in Iowa tend to be older (73 percent are over age 45, compared with just under half in New Hampshire); three times more evangelical (60 percent to 23 percent); less wealthy (half as many caucus-goers as New Hampshire voters earn $100,000 or more annually); and more rural (69 percent of voters in Iowa compared with 36 percent in New Hampshire).

Taken together, Iowa and New Hampshire reflect the national GOP electorate. "If you can win Iowa and New Hampshire," said Wayne MacDonald, chairman of the Granite State's Republican Party, "you've essentially got your nominating coalition."

After a narrow victory in Iowa, Romney is poised for that sweep. The only question is whether his margin of victory on Tuesday night will meet the high expectations. Put another way: Can Rick Santorum bounce out of Iowa to shave Romney's lead in New Hampshire and establish himself as a sustainable and viable conservative alternative?

The die was cast months ago, when former New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen cleared his throat at the Bedford steakhouse and told Romney to think twice about courting Iowa evangelicals again. "I wouldn't focus on Iowa next time," he said, according to three of the dinner guests. "Let it go."

Presented by

Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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