N.H. State Sen. Jack Barnes, left, and former Gov. John Sununu, right, make… (Michael A. Memoli / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Manchester, N.H. — The reordering of the Republican presidential race won't be known until late Tuesday when the results of the Iowa caucuses are released, but one thing that is clear is that the candidates are heading into Romney country in New Hampshire over the next week.
Through all the wild swings in the polls this year, Romney has held a solid lead in the Granite State – 43% in Tuesday's Suffolk University/7News tracking poll and 39% in the Boston Globe/University of New Hampshire survey released on Christmas Day – consistently outpacing his nearest rivals by some 20 points.
Even when his campaign was focused on a strong finish in Iowa last week, he tended to his New Hampshire backers – holding two events after Christmas and two at the end of the week before returning to Iowa for New Year's Eve.
The campaign is so confident in its prospects here that they announced that Romney would leave Thursday to campaign for 24 hours in South Carolina – the next battleground – before returning for a spaghetti dinner in New Hampshire's Lakes Region, and back-to-back debates Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Romney's strength here stems from his formidable ground organization, which has built off his support from 2008, and the fact that his policies align with the moderate Republican electorate here. Unlike Iowa, social conservatives and evangelicals will play a far smaller role in the Jan. 10 primary, and independents will also be permitted to cast ballots.
New Hampshire voters also know Romney better than many of the other GOP candidates. In 2008, the former Massachusetts governor bombarded New Hampshire voters with ads – a move that some believed contributed to his loss here to John McCain – but one that also meant he entered the 2012 race with near universal name recognition.
He has been a frequent presence in the state – spotted on the jogging trails and at the hardware store near his summer home on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee – and he has built good will among the states' elected officials over several years by appearing at fundraisers and making generous contributions to the party as well as state candidates.
Romney's campaign operatives say he retained more than 85% of his supporters from 2008 and his staff has been in constant touch with those backers, as well as voters leaning their way, to ensure a strong turnout next Tuesday.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is surging in Iowa, have also campaigned extensively in New Hampshire (though many of Santorum's events were earlier this year before he turned his attention to Iowa). But neither candidate has presented a challenge to Romney thus far.
In the Suffolk University poll released Tuesday, Santorum had inched up to 6%, while Huntsman was at 10%. Texas Rep. Ron Paul was maintaining his steady second place position with 16%. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been sliding in other early primary states, took fourth place at 9%.
While the other candidates await results in Iowa on Tuesday night, Huntsman plans to hold his 150th New Hampshire event in Peterborough tonight with former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.