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NEW HAMPSHIRE PRIMARY: THE REPUBLICANS

Romney camp is dealt another blow

His supporters gamely applaud the candidate's concession speech, but disappointment is etched on their faces.

January 09, 2008|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

BEDFORD, N.H. — A grim mood befell Mitt Romney's election-night party just minutes after the New Hampshire polls closed Tuesday.

Several hundred supporters, many sipping wine and beer, gathered at a banquet hall here to celebrate. Instead, TV network projections of rival John McCain's victory flashed on the flat-screen monitors just after 8 p.m.

The former governor of Massachusetts was counting on this neighboring New England state to vault him to the Republican nomination for president. New Hampshire instead wound up worsening the blow that Romney suffered last week when he finished second in the Republican caucuses in Iowa.

Watching election returns down the road at a Hampton Inn with his wife, Ann; their five grown sons; and several top aides, Romney quickly concluded he had lost. He called McCain at 8:20 p.m. to congratulate him. Minutes later, he conceded before the crowd at the banquet hall.

"Great job," Romney said of McCain's comeback victory.

At first Romney's supporters had ignored the growing evidence of McCain's strength. The hum of cocktail conversation went on as if nothing had happened.

Denial soon gave way to resignation. Images of celebration at McCain's election-night party appeared on the monitors. Luke Freudenberg, 29, a construction contractor who watched with his mother, Marie, owner of a pizza restaurant near the Romney vacation estate, saw Romney's loss as a bad sign of things to come.

"Historically, coming in second in Iowa and New Hampshire doesn't bode well," he said.

Romney, surrounded by family members and sounding improbably chipper, raced through his speech. Behind him, his wife struggled not to frown.

The crowd applauded gamely, waving red foam mitts and banging red "thunder stick" balloons as they chanted, "Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!"

But as his supporters dispersed, long faces and shrugs betrayed their disappointment.

"I kind of figured this was going to happen this way," said Romney volunteer Bob De Gange, 52, a Manchester salesman. "I thought we'd come in a stronger second."

Others pondered what-ifs.

"If we'd had another 48 or 72 hours, we could have pulled even," said Salt Lake City banker Mickey Taylor, a Romney fundraiser and friend of the candidate's son Josh.

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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