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New Hampshire primary: why the 2012 campaign is different

A host of nationally televised presidential debates has left some New Hampshire voters hungering for closer – and more substantive – contact with the candidates.

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"If you can win the New Hampshire [GOP] primary, it's usually an indication that you will have a better chance in a general election because the New Hampshire Republicans are much more moderate – they're closer to the center of America's political distribution," says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

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Why Romney resonates

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has held a formidable lead in New Hampshire for months, and his appeal to voters here is multipronged, political scientists say.

Republican voters in the state tend to be fiscally conservative but not as passionate about socially conservative issues (think abortion and gay marriage) as Republicans elsewhere in the country – which is a better match for Mr. Romney's record. And Romney's Mormon faith isn't a barrier, as it may be elsewhere, because "Yankees ... think [your religion] is nobody's business," says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Romney also has a home-turf advantage: He owns a lake house here, and voters are familiar with him from his 2008 bid for the nomination (he came in second, behind Sen. John McCain).

New Hampshire is "a must win for [Romney] ... and he's got to come in first by a decent margin" of about eight percentage points, Ms. Donahue says.

Nationally, Romney has struggled to expand his support, falling behind former House Speaker Gingrich in many polls.

The results of the New Hampshire primary "will give us a good indication of how deep the resistance to Mitt Romney is among Republican primary voters," says Scott Rasmussen, president of polling firm Rasmussen Reports.

Romney's support has been "soft" here, say many political experts. His lead over Gingrich shrank to between five and 18 percentage points in mid-December, depending on the poll – down from 38 points in June. The race overall is still fluid, they add, with slightly more than half of likely voters saying they still haven't made up their minds.

For months, Romney's team in New Hampshire ran "a very timid front-runner campaign ... and getting within 10 feet of Mitt Romney without going through [metal detectors], bomb-sniffing dogs, and at least one [body] cavity search is impossible," says Patrick Griffin, an unaligned Republican strategist and senior fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics (NHIOP) at St. Anselm College, where he moderated the Dec. 12 Gingrich-Huntsman event.

But by mid-December, the candidate running second to Romney was Gingrich, not Mr. Huntsman, the former Utah governor who has been an avid in-person campaigner. Huntsman has set up his national headquarters here and has attended more than 120 events, joking that he's acquired a New Hampshire accent. But he is third or fourth in the polls – barely breaking double digits.

Gingrich was slow to hire campaign staff in New Hampshire, yet he now draws enthusiastic crowds of voters looking for a Romney alternative.

In contrast to Romney's well-groomed family image, Gingrich is a "Tasmanian devil in a dust storm ... who's unafraid to mingle with the great unwashed of the Granite State," Mr. Griffin says. "Perfection versus redemption – that's become the narrative of this choice between Romney and Gingrich," and redemption is easier for most Americans to relate to, he adds.


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