Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney speaks at Robie's… (Steven Senne, Associated…)
Reporting from Hooksett, N.H. — On the eve of participating in his sixth Republican presidential debate Tuesday night, Mitt Romney returned to old haunts in New Hampshire, exuding the air of a candidate who is leading by double digits in the state.
His visit to a New Hampshire campaign landmark here — Robie's Country Store — was a marked contrast to his previous stop in December 2007, not long before he lost his first bid for the presidential nomination.
Back then, the former Massachusetts governor was often on the defensive about his authenticity and his changed positions on such issues as abortion, gay rights and gun control. He had irritated voters by spending lavishly on television commercials long before anyone cast ballots. Some dismissed him as scripted and robotic.
This campaign cycle, he has been loose and confident. Outside Robie's, he spoke on an unpainted plywood box stamped with his last name — a makeshift stage meant to represent his more understated campaign style.
Romney has been helped, in part, by the shift in focus from national security and foreign policy issues in 2007 to the nation's economic troubles — a topic the former businessman likes to say is "in his wheelhouse."
After listening Romney talk about shrinking incomes and unemployment Monday, 93-year-old Dorothy Robie, who has seen many candidates pass through the doors of her family's store, said he was doing a better job of addressing voters' anxieties: "He's talking right to the people — what the people want to hear."
Other, more subtle changes have worn well here. Instead of rushing out the door after events, he often mingles with voters until just a few stragglers remain.
He is running a more fiscally prudent effort. He has a little entourage and has yet to air a campaign ad. He boasts of flying budget-conscious airlines. His events rarely get fancier than a campaign banner, a flag or red, white and blue bunting.
Steve Duprey, the state's former Republican Party chairman, calls it a more relaxed and "right-sized" campaign for New Hampshire.
"Last time, people had the sense that his town hall meetings were fairly scripted and that he really didn't engage in the give and take. He's completely changed that," said Duprey, who remains neutral in the race, though his wife works with Ann Romney, the candidate's wife. "People are getting to know him better."
It will be months before Republicans settle on their nominee, but Romney enters Tuesday night's forum in a strengthened position.
In New Hampshire, he outpaced his opponents by more than 20 percentage points in last week's poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center and television station WMUR. And after a series of smooth debate performances, Romney has also regained his front-runner position in national polling.
Even onetime critics like Steve Schmidt, who fashioned Republican presidential nominee John McCain's strategy to defeat Romney in 2008, describe the former governor as a "remarkably better" candidate this time. By defending the healthcare program he sponsored in Massachusetts, Schmidt said, Romney is better equipped to withstand attacks on his authenticity, even if the program's mandate for insurance coverage irritates many GOP voters.
"Four years ago he had a very transactional approach to issues. Four years later he has, seemingly, a very principled approach," Schmidt said.
When opponents have challenged him in debates, Schmidt said, "He has swatted it down like it's child play. He has showed humor. He has been coherent. He has been able to drive a message focusing on jobs and the economy."
At this early stage, all of that could be fleeting. Romney's opponents have sought in recent days to turn the discussion back to his shifts on social issues. Texas Gov. Rick Perry released a selectively edited Web ad Monday that accused Romney of being "a flip-flopper" on healthcare.
And Romney, whose net worth is valued at more than $190 million, is still having trouble connecting with undecided voters like Jim Belanger, 68, of Hollis, N.H. "I'm not sure that he feels what the common man feels," Belanger said. "People who have always had money can't think the same as people who haven't. They can't relate."
Romney also has had a few gaffes that could follow him — such as his joke to a group of job seekers in Florida that he too was "unemployed," though his status was voluntary.
And the verdict is still out on his 1950s-era humor. At a New Hampshire diner this summer, for example, he suggested that eggs Benedict should be served on hubcaps "because there's no plates like chrome for the hollandaise."
On Monday in Milford, when Ann Romney told the crowd her role with the campaign was to show voters "the other side of Mitt, which you might not all get to see," her husband turned and showed his back to the audience.
Ann Romney paused as the crowd laughed. "Oh dear," she said with a sigh.