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Romney is one of the regulars at N.H. retreat

Has quiet life in Wolfeboro

WOLFEBORO, N.H. -- On a brilliant summer day last week, Rudy Giuliani made a campaign stop at Bailey's Bubble, an ice cream stand with a blue awning in the center of this picturesque town on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. A throng of well-wishers surrounded the famous man in the white shirt and yellow tie who signed T-shirts and posed for pictures between bites of coffee Heath frozen yogurt.

A few hours after Giuliani and his entourage departed, after the daytime crowds of tourists had thinned out, another presidential candidate appeared, wearing athletic shorts and a T-shirt, with only his wife at his side. They chatted with the few other customers in line.

"I heard Rudy was here today," Mitt Romney told Stephanie Burrows, 18, who works behind the counter, as she recalled later. As he left with his ice cream, he said with a grin, "But everyone knows I'm the regular."

In fact, some of the younger teenagers serving up sundaes at the Bubble don't always recognize Romney, who waits in line like everyone else and often blends right in with the crowd. Since he adopted Wolfeboro as his summer retreat and family gathering spot a decade ago, Romney has established such a low-key rapport with this tiny New England community that to many locals, he is almost invisible.

"He just kind of sneaks in and sneaks out," said Derrie Saunders, an administrative assistant at the Chamber of Commerce.

When he is here -- which is not often, because of his demanding schedule -- Romney can sometimes be seen riding his bike through the quaint town center, or chatting with the owner of a local business, or waving hello as he passes by on a boat or jet ski. But for the most part, he and his family lead a quiet existence, revolving around their large family and a few close friends and neighbors.

Wolfeboro, which lies on the lake's southeastern shore, is a busy place in the summertime; its population triples in size to 18,000 at the height of the season, according to the Chamber of Commerce. But even with heavy summer traffic, it manages to retain the sensibility of a small New England village; residents take pride in the small family businesses thriving in the wood and brick buildings along Main Street, and the shopkeepers seem to know everyone in town.

In a pace where it is easier to buy an inflatable dinghy than a designer dress shirt, and where wealthy executives and locals brush shoulders at the town dock, residents look approvingly on the Romneys' low profile.

They reciprocate in typical New Hampshire live-and-let-live style.

"I think people really like to give him his privacy," said Deb Skelley, who owns Bailey's Bubble. She said Romney tends to come for ice cream in the early evening, often with his wife or a crew of children and grandchildren in tow, before the big crowds arrive after dusk. "They try not to make a big scene when he's around. I think he feels very comfortable here -- people just go about their business."

On only a couple of occasions has Romney caused a stir. Shortly after he became governor, he and his sons rescued a family whose boat was sinking one evening on the lake, creating enough drama to inspire them to hold a press conference. The same summer, the Massachusetts State Police set up a 700-foot-long security line that extended about 250 feet into the lake, according to news reports at the time. Locals bristled. The New Hampshire Union-Leader huffed that the ocean around former President George H.W. Bush's Kennebunkport compound is not roped off.

The line quickly came down, said Curt Golder, a local fishing guide, and "that was the end of it."

Romney's son Matt said in a recent phone interview that he and his four brothers and their families try to gather for at least one week each summer at the lake house, where they spend most of their time swimming, waterskiing, hiking, and cooking outdoors.

"The most important part about it is it's just a gathering place to get all the cousins and brothers together and relax," he said.

His father, he said, is an especially good water-skier.

"I know he does this thing where he gets on a plywood disk and gets up on . . . a stepladder on top of the disk and actually skis on top of it," Matt Romney said. "He is pretty creative."

At least so far, Romney's presidential campaign seems to have had little effect on his profile at the lake. Gordon Hunt, who owns Bradley's Hardware, said Romney stopped in a few weeks ago -- first thing in the morning, as usual, before many people are about -- to pick up some nuts and bolts and a life jacket.

Shannon Tibbetts, who works at a local market, said Ann Romney "always stops and chats" when she's shopping.

"I keep reminding her that I'm a Democrat, and she laughs," she said.

The Romneys' estate, accessible by a private dirt road on one side and a dirt driveway on the other, sits directly on the lakefront. Now estimated to be worth about $10 million, they bought it for about $3 million in 1997, and have acquired several additional adjoining lots since to create an 11 acre spread, according to town assessing records.

The main house, which the Romneys transformed from yellow stucco to classic cedar shingle, sits on a wooded lot about 30 feet from the lake, affording the family expansive views of the water and the mountains beyond.

The property also includes a barn, where Ann Romney keeps her horses when she visits, and, alongside a small beach, a three-slip boathouse, adorned with a graceful eyebrow window. Their choice of watercraft suggests they have little taste for hyperspeed or ultra luxury -- according to Stephen D. Durgan, general manager of Goodhue & Hawkins, the marina that services the Romneys' boats, said they have a 29-foot Sea Ray, a Malibu ski boat and a few jetskis, and Romney often drops by for gas.

"If you didn't know he was the former governor of Massachusetts, you would think he was just an ordinary guy," Durgan said.

Immediate neighbors know the Romneys a bit better than other townspeople. Jan Livingston, whose summer house sits on lakefront abutting the Romney house, has established a rapport with her next-door neighbors, whom she describes as "very friendly, very nice people." The families don't socialize, but they often talk casually -- about family, or the condition of the road they jointly own. Livingston sometimes goes to visit with Ann and her horses.

"She's genuinely interested in what you have to say, just very willing to spend time to make a connection," Livingston said.

Though some locals say they're anxious about the town becoming the next Kennebunkport if Romney were elected president, Livingston says she doesn't think the town would change, because he would rarely have a chance to visit. Nor, she said, would her relationship with the Romneys.

"I don't see him expecting me to call him Mr. President," she said with a laugh. "It will be, 'Hi, Mitt, how are you? Did you notice we lost a few trees over the winter?' They're just not the kind of people who rely on formality."

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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