Manchester, N.H. —
After taking a week off to campaign and fundraise elsewhere, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney returned on Sunday to New Hampshire, the only early state where he still holds his lead over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
In New Hampshire, Romney has been the presumed frontrunner all along — and he still leads in the polls here by about ten points. He's the former governor of a border state and has a home in New Hampshire. But as Newt Gingrich has sailed past Romney in national polls, he's also gained on Romney in New Hampshire since late November.
Both Romney and Gingrich are starting their weeks off in New Hampshire. On Monday Gingrich appears alongside former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman at what's being billed as a Lincoln Douglas-style debate in Manchester.
And at a town hall in southern New Hampshire on Sunday afternoon, Romney argued he is not only the best candidate to beat President Obama, but also the best prepared to rebuild America.
"We're a patriotic people," Romney said, delivering what he called his 'closing argument' in the last weeks before primary voting starts. "I'm convinced that if we have a president and leaders who will draw on the patriotism of the American people and who will tell the truth and live with integrity and know by virtue of their life experience how to lead, that America will overcome all the challenges we have."
"I will endeavor with all my heart to be that leader," he told a friendly New Hampshire crowd.
In his hour-long question-and-answer session with voters on Sunday, Romney reserved his direct attacks for President Obama, mentioning the president or the problems with his policies well over a dozen times. Romney's critiques of his Republican challengers were implied, as when he repeated twice that he will approach challenges like the Middle East peace progress with "care and caution and sobriety." That's a dig at House Speaker Newt Gingrich that he first deployed during the debate in Iowa on Saturday night, after Gingrich had called the Palestinians "an invented people."
On policy, Romney spoke in favor of Congressional term limits and repeated his pledge to repeal the health care legislation, but said there would need still need to be protections in place for patients with pre-existing conditions. He questioned whether AmeriCorps or the National Endowment for the Arts should receive taxpayer money and called "defending and protecting the Constitution" his most unwavering core principle.
Romney also got personal, talking about his time serving his Mormon mission in France when he was asked by a New Hampshire voter about an experience that had changed him. He started by acknowledging he had grown up in an affulent household, but in France, he said, his monthly budget was restricted by the church to the equivalent of $500 or $600 per month in today's dollars.
"With that we had to buy our clothing, our food, our rent, virtually everything we had," he said. "So you know you're not living high on the hog. And so I lived with people in France who lived very modestly."
Romney described some of his apartments as not having showers, refrigerators or modern plumbing. The experience gave him a deeper appreciation of being American and providing for his family — and he proposed to his now-wife immediately upon his return. "I became much more serious. I matured in lots of ways," Romney said.
It's that seriousness, rather than personal details of Romney's life, that voters most often mentioned when asked about their support for Romney. "I'm finally glad that we're going to have a businessperson in the White House, who understand what's going on," said Republican Gerd Laudein at the Romney town hall.
Others mentioned his intergrity, including his reluctance to criticism his Republican opponents. But even those that like that about him, such as Republican Marge Gifford of Nashua, are have concerns that he's not fighting back at Gingrich.
"Right now, it might be. I'm not really sure. It's worrying me a little bit," Gifford said, after calling Gingrich's surge "disturbing."
And that's the challenge for Mitt Romney less than a month out from voting in New Hampshire. In current polls, about 60 percent of New Hampshire voters support a different candidate. If they coalesce around an alternative, such as Gingrich, Romney is in deep trouble.
But these voters in New Hampshire, like those across the country, have been trying out alternatives for months now. They include Robert Jursik, a local activist from Concord. He was a confident Michele Bachmann supporter when we spoke in July.
"I sense that Michele Bachmann shares my resentment," Jursik said then. "I sense that she shares my righteous indignation that the good citizens of this state and around the country are being put through hell by the choices of this administration."
But all that changed in October, when he and other local supporters were angered by her campaign's decision to focus much more on the race in Iowa and Florida, and his turnaround has been stark. His candidate now: Newt Gingrich.
"What I find with Newt is it's the same kind of attitude, of drive," Jursik said last week. "It's the same kind of impetus to want to try to reverse what's happened and put the country back on the right track. It may not be the same resentment, but it is the same sense of urgency.
Jursik is also choosing different words to describe his political orientation. This summer, he described himself as a Tea Party supporter. Now, he calls himself a "mainstream conservative Republican."