KEENE, N.H. — Mitt Romney is running for the Republican presidential nomination as if he's the inevitable winner.
But voters in this state, which traditionally holds the nation's first presidential primary, are known for their unpredictable behavior, and the persistent Romney lead in state polls is hardly a comfortable one. In fact, Gallup reported Wednesday that Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a newcomer to the race, suddenly has opened a wide lead over Romney in its national survey.
Gallup's Aug. 17-21 poll found that 29 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents nationwide preferred Perry; Romney had 17 percent. Some 1,040 people were surveyed; the margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Romney, campaigning in New Hampshire, said he was unconcerned. "The field is still fluid," he said. But the finding confirms the fragile nature of his lead.
"Romney's not doing as well as he should be," said state Republican Rep. Tony Soltani of Epsom.
Yet Romney's air of confidence, even swagger, remained apparent Wednesday as he began a two-day, five-stop tour of the state.
During an hourlong town hall meeting in this southwestern corner of the state, he stayed away from criticizing — or even acknowledging — his Republican rivals, aiming his barbs instead at President Barack Obama.
Romney touted his experience as a business executive, sprinkling his talk with lofty anecdotes about "new empires of economic vitality" and "the ingenuity and power of the people who have made this land so great."
He's visiting largely comfortable but crucial parts of the state, such as this standing-room-only crowd at the Keene Recreation Center. He took 15 largely friendly questions, mostly from people who've known him for years, first as the governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, then as a GOP presidential contender in 2008.
Romney, it seems, is "running as an incumbent," said Travis Blais, the Republican chairman of the town of Windham.
Yet Romney is no sure thing. Activists question his fealty to conservative causes. Voters say he lacks the passion for change they so badly want. And Perry has on paper all of Romney's strengths, notably fundraising ability and executive experience.
He's local, he's battle-tested and to many, he looks like a president.
"People here know Romney," said Tom Rath, a veteran state Republican strategist and Romney adviser.
They sure do.
"I liked how he balanced the liberal Massachusetts Senate and House and got things done," said Isaac Matson, a Baldwinville, Mass., college student.
"He's truthful. He can be trusted," added Barbara Kerbaugh, a Surry retiree.
They see Romney as a leader, someone who instantly inspires confidence. "I like his personality and I like his history,'' said Don Mueller, a retired Richmond construction company owner.
Romney has a home in Wolfeboro, and he can effortlessly banter about the foliage, the roads, whatever. At the Keene session Wednesday, he answered questions standing in front of a big green wall painted to look like part of Boston's Fenway Park scoreboard. The local news media often give him the hometown treatment: A story this week in the influential New Hampshire Union Leader was headlined, "A Romney win might mean a 'summer White House' for Wolfeboro."
The local angle helps, said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, who added that Romney fits the image of the kind of politician whom state Republicans have long embraced: "the calm, collected businessman, someone who can talk credibly about job creation."
Romney also benefits from lessons learned from his failed 2008 campaign: Stick to your message, raise lots of money, make sure your strongest voters stay with you and build that aura of inevitability.
For instance, Romney skipped the Iowa straw poll earlier this month, after winning it handily in 2007. That Romney win was overshadowed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's surprising second-place finish; Huckabee went on to win the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus months later.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who like Romney sensed little fervor for his candidacy in Iowa that year, didn't compete. McCain won in New Hampshire and went on to win the nomination.
So Romney runs a carefully organized, relentlessly on-message campaign here, calling himself a "conservative businessman." He laid out a general seven-point plan that includes tax rates that are more competitive with other nations and regulations that are "encouraging of the private sector."
Too often, he said, Obama and his backers look to government to fix problems.
"I believe in free enterprise and capitalism," Romney said. "I like business. I like small business."
He needs this state. The assumption is that a more conservative figure, such as Iowa straw poll winner Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, runner-up Rep. Ron Paul of Texas or Perry, will win Iowa and perhaps South Carolina, the other major early test.
Then they'll all slug it out in Florida, where Romney's forces think that his financial strength, as well as his center-right appeal, will give him an advantage.
The strategy has a lot of potential flaws.
First, that New Hampshire poll number hasn't moved much. "He hasn't grown to where he needs to be to win," said David Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, which polls in New Hampshire.
Over the past year, Romney's state support has ranged from a high of 41 percent to a low of 32 percent in the University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll. He was at 35 percent in the latest poll, June 21 to July 1. Some 357 voters were polled; the margin of error is plus or minus 5.2 percentage points.
The numbers suggest an opening exists for a strong alternative, someone Paleologos said "hasn't emerged yet." Perry campaigned in the state last week, and while he drew few raves, he piqued curiosity and is considered a potentially strong player.
Second, Romney continues to be dogged by his Massachusetts record — and the charge that he's "a slippery political elitist," as New Hampshire Republican state Rep. Matt Quandt put it.
The Romney record is well-known here, notably on health care. The Massachusetts plan he signed into law is regarded as a model for the 2010 federal health care law that conservative Republicans deride as "Obamacare." The federal law will require almost everyone to obtain coverage by 2014 or pay a fine.
Romney vowed Wednesday that the "first thing" he'd do as president is "make sure Obamacare is history and not our future."
But his record is on a lot of minds. He got a question about it Wednesday, and he told the crowd, "What we did in Massachusetts I'm not going to apologize for. It was right in Massachusetts," explaining that each state's officials should determine what's best for its constituents. "What we did in Massachusetts will not work in Mississippi."
About one-third of the crowd of about 200 people applauded. Nonetheless, some see Romney's nuanced position on health care as a potential political problem.
"I just can't get myself to commit to Romney," Soltani said. "I don't know if he's going to flip-flop again."
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