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Romney Bets on Old Rules as Newt Moves Under Radar

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Thursday, December 15, 2011

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- "We're not going to lose in New Hampshire." So says Mitt Romney's state coordinator, Jason McBride.

Stuart Stevens, the Romney campaign's TV ad-maker, expresses similar confidence. Asked if Romney might finish second in New Hampshire, his answer is an unhesitating "no."

Whether that confidence is well founded may determine the fate of the candidate who has been the on-and-off frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

There are four contests in January -- the Iowa caucuses, and then the primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Romney currently trails Newt Gingrich in polls in three of the four. Only in the Granite State does he cling to the lead he has held in every poll there since April 2010.

If New Hampshire follows the pattern of past primaries, Romney should be headed for a win. In 2008, he only narrowly lost the state, 37 percent to 32 percent, to John McCain. He's been running ahead of that 32 percent in almost all polls this cycle.

He has been building an organization replete with field directors and voter-identification efforts since last May. An absentee ballot drive is getting underway.

McBride is confident that this organizational effort will deliver. "At the end of the day, the ground game is going to matter."

Romney has the support of seven of the 10 county sheriffs, of dozens of state legislators, of legions of Republican activists. Romney signs vastly outnumber those of other candidates on lawns and along highways.

His ads are on the air on Manchester's Channel 9 and will start airing soon on Boston stations.

The efforts of other candidates who have followed the traditional playbook so far seem to be falling short. Polling suggests that Ron Paul may double the 8 percent he won here in 2008.

Jon Huntsman may also break into double digits. He has concentrated his efforts in New Hampshire and has put together an organization with six full-time field representatives and a 140-person leadership team.

His numerous campaign events attract serious and attentive audiences. But they tend to draw about 75 to 150 people, as compared to 250 for Romney.

By way of comparison, the campaigns for Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are invisible here. Rick Santorum has an office with two paid staffers but has attracted just a handful of volunteers.

Under the old rules, then, Romney seems to have constructed an impregnable firewall in New Hampshire, able to withstand the surge -- McBride calls it a "bubble" -- for Newt Gingrich that has been sweeping much of the country.

But do the old rules still apply? Sam Pimm, hired a week ago to manage Gingrich's voter identification and get-out-the-vote efforts in the state, is not so sure. He helped train candidates that enabled New Hampshire Republicans to gain 122 seats in the 400-member state House in 2010.

Pimm says the Gingrich campaign has hired 15 full-time staff, all locals, in the last two weeks and has made 50,000 phone calls to voters in the last seven days. It hired Charlie Spano, who ran field operations for Herman Cain, three days ago.

New technology has made political communication much easier, faster and cheaper than it was even a few years ago. VOIP software makes it possible for volunteers to make phone calls from home in a way that campaigns can control and monitor.

The Gingrich campaign seems to have a more difficult task than the Romney campaign. Polling indicates that Romney's support has been relatively constant over a long period, making it easier for the campaign to identify and keep in touch with those voters.

In contrast, almost all support for Gingrich is much more recent and may be subject to rapid change. Mobilizing that support may be like corralling mercury.

Certainly there is interest in the former speaker. He attracted a crowd of 600 to Windham High School on Monday night and got thunderous applause from the audience. But those proudly wearing Newt 2012 buttons seemed to be outnumbered by those who were still undecided or leaning to Romney or another candidate.

"It's fluid," says former state Attorney General Tom Rath, a Romney backer. "New Hampshire is always tight." But, he adds, "I don't see any slippage for us."

Mitt Romney is betting, and betting more than the $10,000 he offered in last Saturday's debate, that Rath is right -- and that the old rules still apply.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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