Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney can campaign in New Hampshire and still sleep at night in his own bed in Massachusetts. Yet, the neighbor's edge has been less than a home-court advantage in the nation's first 2008 presidential primary state.
The former Massachusetts governor is romancing an electorate that's already shown fondness for rivals John McCain and interest in Rudy Giuliani. Granite State residents are increasingly voting Democratic, and the expanding ranks of independents may decide they'd rather pick among Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.
"I think the real problem for him is that both he and John McCain are so busy courting the right wing and trumpeting their support for the war, that won't sell up here," said Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College. "What may end up happening is that independent voters gravitate to the Democratic primary. That would leave (Romney and McCain) battling over the hardcore Republicans."
Romney has been campaigning in New Hampshire for the past two years, driving north from the statehouse in Boston to address GOP party events in Manchester, Concord and elsewhere. He was to return Thursday for another series of stops.
Romney also has hosted Republican activists at his vacation home overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H.
Now that he's a full-fledged candidate, Romney is boasting about the support of one of the most prominent Republicans in the state, former national party committeeman Tom Rath. His national field director, Julie Teer, also headed President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign in New Hampshire.
Nonetheless, even Romney's own supporters concede he faces a challenge next year.
Earning New Hampshire's votes
A recent WMUR-TV/CNN poll showed Giuliani and McCain, the Arizona senator, in a statistical dead heat. McCain, who stunned Bush by beating him by 18 points in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, had the support of 28 percent of likely New Hampshire voters in the survey while Giuliani had 27 percent.
Romney was a distant third, with 13 percent.
"People assume that just because he's from a neighboring state, he will have a huge advantage. But Giuliani and McCain are household names in this state, and McCain got one out of two votes in the last contested primary up here," said Rich Killion, a New Hampshire political consultant advising Romney.
Kevin Madden, Romney's campaign spokesman, said: "Folks are not going to spot you a lead just because you happen to be nearby geographically. You have to earn the vote of every New Hampshire voter."
The underpinnings of Romney's challenge are not unique.
Republican registration has declined in New Hampshire, while the ranks of Democrats have remained relatively stable and so-called undeclared voters have risen. In the 2000 presidential vote, the electorate was 37 percent Republican, 27 percent Democratic and 36 percent independent.
By last year's midterm election, those numbers had shifted to 30 percent Republican, 26 percent Democratic and 44 percent independent.
Last fall, New Hampshire voters ousted their two Republican U.S. House members, Jeb Bradley and Charles Bass, and replaced them with Democrats, Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter. The state's governor, John Lynch, is a Democrat who was re-elected with 74 percent of the vote.
In 2008, one of the state's two U.S. senators, Republican John Sununu, faces re-election. In a sign of the challenge confronting him, he has decided not to endorse any candidate in the presidential race, fearing it could split his support within the Republican ranks.
McCain has the benefit of lingering affection from 2000, as well as an independent reputation with which many New Hampshire Republicans identify. His national political director, Michael Dennehy, was his New Hampshire state director in 2000, although it will be a challenge for Dennehy to replicate his past success.
"There is no way he's going to have the same magic in 2007 and 2008 that he had in 2000," said Andrew Smith, a pollster and director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "People don't fall in love twice with the same person."
As for Giuliani, the former New York City mayor has benefited from his post-Sept. 11 celebrity, but Smith argues his stature may decline after closer scrutiny by the local and national media.
The pollster said the challenge confronting Romney is introducing himself to voters beyond southern New Hampshire, which is inundated with Boston media coverage, and also highlighting his business resume.
"And I don't think it matters to a lot of voters that he was perceived as a socially moderate-to-liberal figure in Massachusetts, because that's the way a lot of Republican New Hampshire voters see themselves," Smith said. "Some of those things that may hurt Romney nationwide don't hurt him here."