Mitt Romney bus tour: second chance at first impression in New Hampshire

Mitt Romney has launched a three-day bus tour in New Hampshire, in part, to erase his aloof image. He's giving more interviews and shaking more hands – and getting a bump in the polls.

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney shakes hands with Dennis Legere while campaigning in a Berlin, N.H. neighborhood, Thursday Dec. 22, 2011.
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Mitt Romney’s three-day bus tour across northern New Hampshire this week may be rural voters’ last chance to meet up close with the man who’s been campaigning here for years in the hopes of becoming president.

Dubbing it the “Earn It” tour, the former Massachusetts governor is reassuring Granite Staters that he doesn’t take their votes for granted, even though he’s led in the polls for months.

With just over three weeks left before the Jan. 10 first-in-the-nation primary, Mr. Romney is projecting the confidence of a front-runner while at the same time redeeming himself from a reputation of having kept both the press and voters at arm’s length during much of the campaign.

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“After we’ve had a series of flavor-of-the-month candidates pop up ... he’s trying to seal the deal in New Hampshire now that it looks like Newt Gingrich’s star is on the wane,” says Chris Galdieri, a politics professor at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

Romney has taken a few moments to respond to Mr. Gingrich’s suggestion that he's gone negative in Iowa, largely funded by Romney supporters. Perhaps Romney’s most quoted moment yesterday, during a stop in Keene: “If you can’t stand the relatively modest heat in the kitchen right now, wait until Obama’s Hell’s Kitchen shows up.”

This morning, he declined Gingrich’s challenge to meet in a one-on-one debate.

Mr. Romney launched the bus tour with a speech designed to show he’s the clear contender against President Obama. And at stop after stop, he’s emphasized his business experience and plans to shore up the economy.

A Newport, N.H., woman yelled out to him yesterday, asking if anyone has been able to get close enough to ask him anything. So he invited a question from her, the Lost Angeles Times reports.

Her question: “I don’t know if you’re conservative enough to hold the line against Democrats.... Can you reassure me you actually are?” Romney cited his record of balanced budgets and avoiding tax increases while governor of Massachusetts, the Times reports.

Many Republican and independent voters in New Hampshire still may not be thrilled with Romney, “but they are starting to realize the other table doesn’t have a lot of merchandise on it,” says Patrick Griffin, an unaligned political strategist and senior fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College.

By giving more media interviews, letting voters know about his views on a host of policy issues, and sticking around campaign events long enough to shake their hands, “he’s a new guy in this race,” Mr. Griffin says. “I call it the 'Contrition Tour'.”

Other political experts see the tour not so much as a reinvention as an attempt for Romney to humanize himself. He wants to “make himself more exciting as a candidate ... but still [maintain the image] of the steady, dependable candidate ... the safe bet as the best chance to beat Obama,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Republican activists in early voting states, including New Hampshire, have gained a more favorable view of Romney in recent weeks, according to the latest Power Outsiders poll by the Huffington Post and Patch. Romney’s got 35 percent of their support compared with Gingrich’s 23 percent; and 26 percent say their views of Romney have improved recently.

In national polls, Romney holds a lead averaging 13 percentage points over Gingrich, Real Clear Politics reports.

In New Hampshire, Romney has also picked up endorsements of late that “reinforce the idea that people are getting on board,” says Fergus Cullen, former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who is still undecided. That includes some Republicans who had been reluctant to commit to him earlier in the campaign, such as prominent conservative Jennifer Horn.

“It’s like the accountant your mother is encouraging you to date,” Mr. Cullen says. You may want someone more exciting, but you’re swayed by the argument that he’d be the good and stable choice.

The fight in Iowa by candidates like Rep. Ron Paul and Rep. Michele Bachmann has helped blunt Gingrich’s momentum, analysts say. But if Romney finishes fourth there, “it would increase the pressure on him to prove that Iowa was a fluke,” says Galdieri. “His big thing has always been [his] inevitability ... and once actual votes come in, if [the results] start challenging that perspective, it could be really damaging.”

After Iowa, Romney will have one more week to come back to New Hampshire to try to prove that he can “earn it” here.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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