Jim Cole  /  AP
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., right talks with Republican congressional candidate Frank Guinta during a luncheon in Manchester, N.H., on Sept. 30.
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updated 11/8/2010 9:44:04 AM ET 2010-11-08T14:44:04

There's no rest for the politically weary in New Hampshire.

Some states were still counting ballots from Tuesday's midterm election when the first potential presidential candidate arrived in New Hampshire, which will hold the nation's earliest presidential primary about 15 months from now.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum spoke Thursday at "Politics and Eggs," a "must-do" breakfast forum for all White House hopefuls.

New England College political science professor Wayne Lesperance described the audience like this:

"We all had bags under eyes, we were all exhausted, yet there we were listening to him," he said. "We're in New Hampshire, this is what we do."

With campaign signs from midterm elections still littering the roadways, potential candidates and political junkies are looking to 2012. Voters also are starting to form opinions about the assortment of Republicans who've expressed interest in denying President Barack Obama a second term.

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Exit polls: Romney an early GOP frontrunner
Asked to choose among four potential candidates, about four in 10 Republicans said they want former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to win the 2012 primary, according to exit polls conducted Tuesday for The Associated Press. About a fifth of the Republicans favored former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, putting her about even with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and slightly ahead of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Romney remained the top choice among independents, who outnumber either Republicans or Democrats and can vote in either primary, though more independent voters said they want "someone else" other than the four named Republicans to win.

Voters also were asked about Romney and Palin specifically. About three-quarters of Republicans said they had favorable opinions of both Romney and Palin, and about a quarter had unfavorable opinions. Independents were split in their view of Romney, while most had an unfavorable opinion of Palin.

Palin and Romney are at the opposite extremes when it comes to visiting the state.

Romney, who has a house in Wolfeboro, has made more than half a dozen public appearances in New Hampshire this year, while Palin hasn't been to the state since she was the 2008 vice presidential nominee.

'We have some real choices to make'
Other frequent visitors have included Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Santorum, whose visit Thursday was his sixth this year. Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former New York Gov. George Pataki have dropped by a handful of times. Most of those trips were to support local candidates. Now that that excuse has fallen away, the next few months will reveal who is really serious about running for president.

"We have some real choices to make, and of course, New Hampshire has a disproportionate say in that choice," Santorum said Thursday. "That's why I'm here."

Jim Cole  /  AP
Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin talks to a crowd at an outdoor rally in Laconia, N.H., in October 2008.

Keith Mistretta, 55, a Republican from Durham, met three of the potential candidates — Santorum, Romney and Pawlenty — at fundraisers for New Hampshire candidates last summer and said Friday he is eager for more.

In 2008, he stuck a Romney sign in his yard but otherwise didn't get involved in campaigns. This time will be different.

"I feel passionate about this, I'm energized and I'll probably pick a candidate earlier than most people because I'm already looking at several," said Mistretta, a recruiter for a financial consulting firm. "Everything from making phone calls to waving signs to talking to as many people as possible and showing up at fundraisers."

Mistretta said he still likes Romney, but also is considering Gingrich, Huckabee and conservative commentator Herman Cain, who failed in a 2004 Senate bid in Georgia. Mistretta likes Palin and agrees with her views, but thinks she could play a more powerful role by not running.

Above all, he's looking for a conservative candidate who will limit the size of government and restore fiscal responsibility in Washington. And he expects the enthusiasm surrounding the midterms will continue to build in the coming months.

"Will everyone want to be involved early on in the presidential primary? Perhaps not, but there's enough of us now that there probably will be greater participation than you see in typical primaries," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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