Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took questions from fellow Republicans… (Robert F. Bukaty, AP )
Reporting from Seabrook, N.H. — As Mitt Romney formally announced his presidential bid Thursday, two larger-than-life political personalities crashed into New Hampshire, stealing the nominal frontrunner's thunder and underscoring that the GOP field is far from settled.
Continuing her catch-me-if-you-can bus tour of historic sites on the Eastern Seaboard, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hosted a clambake for "tea party" activists on the coast, proclaiming her love for the movement and her goal of highlighting the importance of the American spirit. And former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani spoke to Republicans at a luncheon in the Mount Washington Valley, arguing that America was headed in the wrong direction and that President Obama's policies were squarely to blame.
As both weigh presidential bids, Giuliani and Palin face challenges in the home of the first-in-the-nation primary — and potential opportunities in reaching groups of voters who are unhappy with the current crop of candidates. But Palin's potential candidacy, and her decision to visit New Hampshire on the same day that Romney was announcing his campaign, was seen as having greater import.
"I don't think this is all happening haphazard, as she [is] sometimes seen. I think it's all about stirring the pot and sending a warning shot across the bow that she's still out there and she has the ability to wreak havoc anytime she likes," said Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "That's the message she's trying to get across to Romney."
Both Giuliani and Palin have bridges to mend in New Hampshire. Palin last visited the state in 2008, when she was the Republican nominee for vice president, and some Republicans believe she has purposely bypassed it ever since, on her book tour and during a Tea Party Express bus tour last year in which she attended an event in Boston and stepped off the bus before the next stop in New Hampshire.
"She has avoided crossing the border on purpose," said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "Nonetheless, he said, she would add excitement to the race.
Success in the New Hampshire primary would be less crucial for Palin — who would likely make a play for the evangelical vote in Iowa and South Carolina — than for Giuliani, whose moderate social policies are anathema to such voters. But despite the former mayor's assets — his reputation as "America's mayor" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and his widespread name recognition — he faces a critical problem in the Granite State: He ignored it in his 2008 presidential run, and many voters haven't forgotten the slight.
"His campaign was so bad that I don't think people are going to give him a second chance, and this is a state where lots of people get second chances," Cullen said.
When Giuliani did show up in New Hampshire, he rarely held the types of events early-state voters want, with lots of discussions and question-and-answer periods. On Thursday, before speaking to more than 100 guests at a cozy Italian bistro in North Conway, he told reporters he had regrets about that campaign.
"We did it more like a presidential campaign as opposed to meeting people, talking to people, doing more informal gatherings … which is one of the key mistakes we made," he said.
He is considering running because, Giuliani says, the nation is being led in the wrong direction by Obama, whom he described as a "failure." His decision, which he says he plans to make by the end of the summer, will hinge on whether he or another Republican represents the most potent threat to Obama.
During the luncheon — the first event on a two-day swing through the state that includes speeches, meetings with prominent Republicans and stops at local newspapers — Giuliani told the voters to ask him whatever they wanted.
"If I have enough wine, I'll tell you the truth," he said, hoisting a glass of Rosso di Montalcino.
And for the next half-hour, Giuliani fielded more than a dozen questions on topics including his views on Obama's healthcare reform and raising the nation's debt ceiling. He faced a number of uncomfortable queries that challenged his moderate positions on abortion, immigration and gun control.
Several voters who attended the lunch said Giuliani's past mistakes would be forgotten if he continued to make such efforts.
"It's a new day, a new dog," said Gail McClure, 67, a retired teacher and quilt shop owner who lives in North Conway.
Palin, for her part, trundled up from Boston in her patriotic-themed bus after delivering a scathing critique of the healthcare plan Romney pushed as governor of Massachusetts.
On Thursday evening, as dozens of reporters watched, Palin arrived at a clambake in Seabrook for invited tea party activists. Palin posed for pictures before heading into the backyard of the house, where about 50 people had gathered.
"We have to get back to what made America great," she told bystanders. "The goal here, as it has been with the bus tour, is to get people to understand how important the American spirit is."
When she left, wearing a navy New Hampshire sweatshirt and holding a bowl of strawberry shortcake, Palin said she had been asked to run.
"A couple insisted that we had to do it — had to do it now! " she said. "There's nice encouragement around here."