9:58 am Jan. 9, 2012
MANCHESTER, N.H.—Not content to walk away from New Hampshire with back-to-back victories in the first two contests, Mitt Romney spent the weekend here re-casting himself as an up-from-his bootstraps everyman who once lived in fear of a pink slip and "never imagined" he would run for president.
Romney, of course, is the son of a former governor and presidential candidate, and is one of the most meticulously organized, least spontaneous politicians to run for president in modern times. So the new story, in which he's an ordinary guy whose presidential run was undertaken with the reluctance of Cincinnatus putting down his plow, is about as convincing as you'd expect it to be.
That afternoon at an event in Rochester, Romney said, “I know what it’s like to worry whether you’re going to get fired. There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.”
No one is quite sure when that would have been.
On Sunday night, inside a packed gymnasium at Exeter High School, Romney's wife, Ann, recalled how she overcame her misgivings about her husband's decision to run for president.
"I said, 'Mitt, can you save America?'" she recalled. "And he said, 'Yes.'"
Romney's ordinary-guy tack comes against a backdrop of attacks on him for his work for Bain Capital, a private equity firm that specialized in tough turnaround projects that often involved asset sales and layoffs, by an angry Newt Gingrich. (On Sunday, Gingrich's super P.A.C. reportedly purchased the rights to a scathing anti-Bain documentary.)
So, on Sunday, Romney talked about stocking the shelves in the early days of some of those ventures, and contrasted the cheap furniture in the executive offices with the budget of Solyndra, the energy company that recently faltered despite having gotten a large grant from the Obama administration.
Earlier in the morning, under fire from Gingrich during a morning debate in Concord, Romney had sought to distance himself from ads put out by a super P.A.C. run by his allies, at first saying he hadn't seen the ads, then proceeding to catalogue their charges in detail, in order to assert their veracity.
("I thought it was very interesting that he said he hadn't seen them but could recite the script," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said in the spin room after the debate, where much of the discussion centered on the back-and-forth over the super P.A.C.)
On Sunday night in Exeter, flanked by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Romney surrogate who is an effective extemporaneous performer and is comfortable interacting with ordinary voters, Romney made the point again.
"This is getting more and more fun," he told the crowd. "I love being able to go across the country. I never imagined I'd get a chance to run for president of the United States."
Referring to Christie's well-received Jersey-guy schtick, Romney said, "This guy says he's a loudmouth from New Jersey, but don't you believe it. He knows how to make things happen, so he's going to make it happen tonight. He's going to tell us how to win this election New Jersey-style, right?"
At the event, Christie positively wowed the crowd, turning a small interruption from an Occupy protest into a series of applause lines, and an attack on Barack Obama.
"I hope the president's watching," Christie said. "I have a message for you, Mr. President. This is the type of disoriented anger your cynicism and your division is causing in our country. Bring our country together! Stop dividing, Mr. President."
The good news for Romney is that he doesn't really have to sell himself to New Hampshire, where he's familiar to voters from his time as governor of Massachusetts and where he finished second to John McCain in the 2008 Republican primary. Thanks in part to the fact that Christie isn't running, Romney is holding on to a commanding lead here over the rest of the field.
"The very things that make him suspect in other states—they're not quite sure where he is on abortion, where he is on gay marriage—they're fine with that," said Andrew Smith, who directs the polling center at the University of New Hampshire.
"He may not be popular with Republicans across the country, but he's very popular here," said Smith.
The broader question, Smith said, is whether Romney's constant tweaks to his presentation (to say nothing of the details of his biography) will become a theme of the campaign coverage, and an issue with voters.
"If the spin off of this is 'you gotta be kidding'—if it becomes kind of something that people just don't believe and it doesn't pass the smell test—it could hurt him," said Smith. "But it remains to be seen how it's portrayed by his opponents, and also by the late-night comedy shows."
Here's the way Romney's problem was described to me by Carl Paladino, New York's most recent Republican nominee for governor: "He's trying to be whatever he has to be, rather than being who he should be ... He hasn't got a clue what he's doing. He's way over his head. He's flip flopped as much as any fish could ever flip flop."
Paladino, it should be said, is supporting Newt Gingrich, and anyway tends to be hyperbolic in his assessments. But in echoing Gingrich's attacks on Romney, he is at the very least foreshadowing what lies in store for Romney from all of his remaining opponents if New Hampshire duly goes ahead and, as expected, give him a solid win and make him a runaway front-runner heading into South Carolina.
As the crowd filed out of the Exeter gymnasium Sunday night, they grabbed yard signs until there weren't any more, and several stopped to buy buttons.
In an overflow gym next to the speech, Romney worked a rope line for a few minutes while the crowd pushed forward and stuck cell phones up into the air to capture the moment.
After receiving one of the very last handshakes Romney doled out before he darted from a raucous crowd out into the cold New Hampshire night, Toni Howard stood against the compressed bleachers of Exeter High School with a giant grin.
"We didn't really meet him," she said. "I just shook his hand and said, 'Pleased to meet you,'" said Howard.
When I asked why she was smiling, she said, "Oh, it's because one of the little kids got to shake his hand, so that's really good for them."
As it turns out, she doesn't even favor Romney.
"I like Newt," she said, and nodded in the direction Romney had just left. "But it looks like he's going to win, so ... "
Some of the enthusiasm in the crowd was for Christie.
"I think he's terrific," said Howard's friend, Christine Sargent, who is also leaning toward Gingrich. "I think Christie is doing great things for New Jersey. He's not taking any baloney."
Howard and Sargent both think Romney would do fine as president.
"I think he'll be OK," Howard said. "I'm very opinionated, so I like people with strong opinions. To me, Romney is very middle of the road—which is probably better for the country, I have to admit."