Former Massachusetts Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Mitt… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
Reporting from Manchester, N.H. — When several GOP contenders announced this week that they would fly straight from Iowa to South Carolina on Wednesday, bypassing the first stages of the fight for supremacy in New Hampshire's presidential primary, it surprised few in this state, least of all the formidable campaign of Mitt Romney.
In New Hampshire, Romney's rivals will face an organization that has been building almost since he lost to John McCain here in 2008. Throughout this year, as his poll numbers fluctuated elsewhere, New Hampshire has remained Romney's fortress. And many voters here say the Jan. 10 primary is Romney's to lose.
New Hampshire Republicans "have a real tendency to pick the next person in line," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, and in this case that is Romney.
"He is a more focused candidate; he's focusing on the right issue; he's got the best organization of any candidate in the state … and on top of that he fits in with the New Hampshire electorate, which is largely a moderate Republican electorate," Smith said. "All of those things together put him in charge."
Still, during an interview at Romney's humming New Hampshire headquarters on Elm Street last week, his state consultant Jim Merrill said the team was running the campaign as though they were "three votes down, three minutes to go."
"Our strategy from Day One has to been to earn it, never take it for granted — and we're not doing that," he said.
As a reminder of how quickly things can change, Merrill points to the New Hampshire exit polls from 2008, which showed that more than half of the state's voters made up their mind in the last week — many of them in the last three days. For decades in New Hampshire, he said, "You've seen large shifts at the end."
Nonaligned strategists here say that attitude is the right one. In a recent Boston Globe/UNH survey, only 26% of voters said they had made a final decision.
New Hampshire voters have shown some willingness to shop for alternatives. At the height of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's surge last month, he drew more than 700 people to a tea-party-organized rally in Windham.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, whose libertarian views and opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have found favor here, has tripled his 2008 support in recent polls to maintain a steady second-place position. Like Paul, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. — who held his 150th New Hampshire campaign event Tuesday night — has demonstrated appeal to New Hampshire's independent voters, who can cast a ballot in the Republican primary.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who kept pace earlier this year with Romney and Huntsman in the number of days spent in New Hampshire, could gain some traction among the voters looking for a more conservative alternative to Romney. But the social conservatives and evangelical voters who dominate the Iowa caucuses are a sliver of electorate here and Santorum's views on social issues are out of step with those of many New Hampshire Republicans, the majority of whom support abortion rights and oppose the repeal of the state's 2009 law permitting same-sex marriage.
By a wide margin, Romney has consistently been ranked by New Hampshire voters as the candidate with the best chance to beat President Obama, the one with the strongest family values and the contender best-equipped to handle the nation's economic problems.
The former governor of neighboring Massachusetts and the owner of a summer home in Wolfeboro, N.H., Romney has tended to his relationships not just with New Hampshire's power brokers — the state's popular U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former Gov. John H. Sununu endorsed him — but also with local sheriffs and statehouse leaders. Since 2008, his Free & Strong America PAC has donated more than $45,000 to New Hampshire's federal candidates and the Republican state committee.
The campaign has also been relentless about identifying its voters through phone calls and micro-targeting — sending mail pieces tailored to each voter's top concern, whether it be federal spending or illegal immigration.
In a flier distributed to supporters who gathered to see Romney on Saturday at the Old Salt restaurant in Hampton, his campaign boasted of having made more than 293,000 phone calls, knocked on nearly 50,000 doors and distributed 16,000 of the blue and white yard signs that seem to dot every corner of the state.
Familiarity with Romney has helped turn his way voters like Alice Bury of Amherst, an independent.
"In the beginning I had heard a lot about Romney flip-flopping and that was one of the reasons I didn't endorse him," said Bury, a retired nurse who was deciding between Gingrich, Romney and Santorum until she attended Romney's recent event in Londonderry. "But I've listened to him ... and he gave answers that really satisfied me. I looked at my own life. We're all human. Has anybody not changed their mind?
"There's never going to be a 100% match," she said. "But he is really up there compared to the other candidates."