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Pitches adapt to N.H. climate

Romney's populist message makes for the most noticeable shift.

January 06, 2008|Scott Martelle and Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writers

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Hillary Rodham Clinton, who stage-managed her way to a third-place finish in Iowa, is suddenly engaging more directly with the New Hampshire masses. Mike Huckabee, who rode his Christian faith to victory in the caucuses, is now talking mostly economics. Mitt Romney, the financially successful son of privilege running on his executive record, has turned populist and demands change in a "broken" Washington.

Politics is nothing if not an exercise in adaptation, and with just days until New Hampshire's primary Tuesday, the main presidential contenders have shifted the focus of their stump speeches here -- Iowa's losers hoping that the caucuses were an anomaly, the winners that the caucuses were the first stirring of the winds of victory.

And against a backdrop of deep voter dissatisfaction with the White House and Congress, nearly all the candidates are trying to portray themselves as the true catalysts for political change.

The most noticeable shifts have come from Romney, who outspent Huckabee by millions in Iowa yet placed a decisive second. Both Republicans have mostly abandoned set pieces on family values and faith to play up the argument that each is best suited to change Washington -- a theme long coursing through the Democratic campaign.

"The two Washington insiders -- John McCain and Hillary Clinton -- both lost," Romney told reporters Friday. "What you're seeing from the people of Iowa is they want someone from outside Washington to come in and change things in Washington, and that's right up my alley."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney has also shifted targets from former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee to McCain, the Arizona senator and 2000 primary victor here who is Romney's biggest hurdle in his hopes that a New Hampshire win will catapult him to the nomination. On Saturday, Romney released a compilation of reports of McCain's use of profanity in outbursts at Republican colleagues.

McCain, meanwhile, has changed little in his speeches after devoting much less time to Iowa than New Hampshire. But he has argued over the last two days that his criticism of how the Iraq war, which he supports, has been waged is evidence that he is "an agent of change."

Straddling a difficult line in appealing to independents and conservative Republicans, McCain listed areas where he had gone against the grain of his party, including the investigation of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff (now convicted) and campaign finance reform.

"People that live and work inside the Beltway and make lots of money, in certain ways, they don't like the reformer," McCain said in a conference call with bloggers.

Huckabee, the former Southern Baptist preacher who anchored his Iowa speeches in faith, now focuses on broader conservative themes and argues that his Iowa win reflected more than evangelical support. His stances remain the same, but he accents different elements.

"Evangelicals did play an important part" in the Iowa win, he told MSNBC on Friday, "but so did the people who support the 'fair tax,' " a plan that seeks to replace the federal income tax with a 23% national sales tax.

A more significant change: his schedule. In Iowa, Huckabee did three or more events a day. Not so in New Hampshire, where aides concede that the best they expect is a strong third. So Huckabee is focusing on trying to parlay the Iowa win into attracting more contributions and staff workers as he builds his organization ahead of the South Carolina and Florida primaries this month and Super Tuesday on Feb. 5.

Among the Democrats, New York Sen. Clinton abandoned her Iowa stump speech for more of a conversation with New Hampshire voters. Conceding that her candidacy has appealed largely to an older demographic, Clinton has shifted her focus to younger voters -- a large part of Barack Obama's base.

As Clinton rode in her bus to a campaign stop Saturday, she and her daughter, Chelsea, spent an hour talking to four undecided New Hampshire voters, ages 18 to 25. Clinton also has loosened up her events. In Iowa she took few audience questions, but at a two-hour event in Penacook, N.H., on Saturday, she took about two dozen.

Obama, the Illinois senator, signaled his intent to stay the course before he landed in New Hampshire, telling reporters on a charter flight from Des Moines that "it's not broken. Why fix it?"

His themes of hope, change and unity remain, while he has added some rhetorical flourishes to a shortened speech.

"What we saw during this past week is the American people rising up and saying to each other, 'We are on the cusp of creating a new majority,' " he told about 3,000 people Saturday at a Nashua high school. "A majority that will help us win this nomination, a majority that will help us win an election in November, but more important, a majority that will help us govern, govern in a way that we have not governed in a long time."

The most consistent of the contenders is former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who has watched the rest of the political pack -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- veer toward his populist message. Though he still talks about corporate greed and lobbyists choking democracy and the middle class, Edwards' tone has softened.

"You know, it's hard to be tough on your banker," he said at a rally Friday in Nashua. "We need somebody who's never taken any of their money."

Times staff writers Michael Finnegan, Maria L. La Ganga, Joe Mathews, Seema Mehta and Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.

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