NH, Final Week, Day 1 -- Part 1

 In the Granite State the day after the Iowa caucuses, it was a little tough to spot the energy that campaigns typically try to project in the final week before the New Hampshire primary, – nothing like the bounce-in-his-step John Kerry victory lap of 2004, or the McCain "Straight Talk" surge of 2000, and certainly not the wild enthusiasms of the 2008 Obama-Clinton showdown.

            What we seem to have is a Mitt Romney awkwardly stuck in transition between primary and general election mode; and a set of underwhelming campaigns hoping to damage the frontrunner just enough to keep the race going to South Carolina.

             I took in three candidiates at four “Town Hall Meetings” yesterday. By the time Mitt Romney took the stage at the first of these, the news had broken that Rick Perry was staying in the race and heading straight to South Carolina. That had to be annoying for the Romney team, because the apparent reversal from the night before could only mean that his Texas funders were prepared to stake him through South Carolina and Florida. Perry skipping New Hampshire also didn't help the lackluster sense I was getting from New Hampshire. Nor did Ron Paul's decision to take a critical two days off the campaign trail -- a rest stop that just might remind some people that a 76-year-old man might not be a wise selection for the Presidency.

            Romney’s first post-Iowa public event, at midday in the Manchester Central High School gym, was a rollout of new endorser John McCain. Senator McCain had come to swallow his pride, pretend to not be brimming with contempt and disdain for the man he battled for the 2008 nomination, and repay his obligation for Romney’s surrogate work (notably fundraising) in that year's general election.

Watching the two on stage was a little like watching Kim Kardashian and Chris Humphries perform a love-song duet (OK, not a great  reference, but it’s at least within the cultural radar of my audience – unlike McCain’s “you remember [1940s boxer] Joe Louis...”), and the setting didn’t help. A third of the gym had to be curtained off to create the appearance of a full house, and that’s even with an enormous media contingent. Those who were there – many of whom, improbably, actually were high school students – were clearly not big fans. Applause was tepid, laughter was minimal, and questions were accusatory.

 The scene may be an early indicator of something I think the media has largely missed: how poorly Romney “closing argument” rhetoric plays with the general-election audience.

That closing argument, laid out a couple of weeks ago in a USA Today op-ed, centers on the call to reverse Barack Obama’s destructive transformation of America away from the promise of equal opportunity, to a promise of equal outcomes.

This is jarringly dissonant with the sense of most Americans that our society is producing grotesquely unequal outcomes. And there can hardly be a worse messenger than the priveleged son of a governor/Fortune 500 CEO, who is now worth a quarter-billion dollars.

Romney’s closing argument also includes direct charges that Obama’s worldview is un-American; claims that this election is a battle "for the soul of the nation," and warnings that the country is fast approaching "the point of no return" – rhetoric that seems unexceptional to those of us who listen to the other Republican candidates on a daily basis, but awfully nasty and apocalyptic for regular Americans who, by and large, like Obama even if they think he should be replaced by someone who can do better. (Some of the specifics Romney is highlighting in the final weeks are also out of step with the bulk of the voting public, such as his insistence that Obama should have forced Iraq to let us keep 20,000 troops in their country.)

I’ve been surprised that Romney has maintained this rhetoric, even as he and his team seem more and more convinced that the nomination is virtually assured. I can’t figure out whether they are actually more worried than they appear, or just trying to end the nomination fight quickly, or if this is in fact the argument they intend to bring to the general-election campaign.

Regardless, it seems to me that he risks alienating the moderate and independent voters who are Romney’s key to a big win in New Hampshire. I’m not sure it will matter much, since there doesn’t seem to be another candidate in the field capable of taking advantage. But if some of those independents and moderates give their votes to Huntsman, or simply stay home, it could end up dropping his winning margin next Tuesday below expectations – especially when compounded by votes he may lose from the right, as his opponents unleash their attacks.

That latter point was in full effect at my second stop, to see Newt Gingrich in Laconia, which will be in the second part of this wrap-up, which I’ll post a little later.

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