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The next stage

As eyes turn to N.H., front-runner becomes the target

By Michael Kranish
Globe Staff / January 4, 2012
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CONCORD, N.H. - The GOP presidential primary spotlight moves today to New Hampshire, with several candidates vowing to launch more aggressive attacks on Granite State front-runner Mitt Romney, and two others all but writing off their chances of winning here.

Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah, who did not compete in Iowa, will join the fray with a renewed attack on Romney. Newt Gingrich, former House speaker, planned a tough assault as well, saying that the former Massachusetts governor is a liar who fakes being a conservative. Texas congressman Ron Paul planned a new round of televised ads targeting Romney, and Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, has used his new media attention to portray himself as the true conservative.

Of the two other candidates, Governor Rick Perry of Texas said he was returning home to reassess his campaign and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said she will go directly to South Carolina, although she was expected to participate in two televised debates in New Hampshire this weekend in advance of Tuesday’s vote.

A sustained negative advertising campaign could leave Romney bloodied, even if he wins here.

The tight race in yesterday’s Iowa caucuses is bound to put extra emphasis on New Hampshire’s traditional role of shaking out and clarifying the field.

“It is certainly a new playing field,’’ said Neil Levesque, executive director of the nonpartisan New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, which hosts a potentially crucial candidate debate on Saturday. “It is the first primary. The rules are different’’ from Iowa’s caucuses, with a broader swath of voters expected to participate.

While Romney has had a large lead in the polls, he faces challenges here that could determine whether his survives for the long term.

Gingrich, who fell about 20 points in Iowa in 20 days after facing millions of dollars of televised attacks against him by a super political action committee that supports Romney, announced yesterday that he is planning a two-day bus tour of New Hampshire, ending speculation that he might join Bachmann in writing off the state. Last night, the New Hampshire Union Leader, whose editorial page endorsed Gingrich, said that the Georgian had purchased a full-page advertisement in today’s newspaper that describes Romney as a “timid Massachusetts moderate.’’

The ad follows Gingrich’s accusation yesterday that Romney has “refused to tell the truth’’ about the super PAC committee that is run by Romney allies and relentlessly attacked Gingrich.

On the surface, New Hampshire appears tailor-made for Romney. He lives here part time in a lakefront home, his Mormon religion and his onetime support of abortion rights are not major issues as they were in Iowa, and he has the money and organization to translate his wide lead into the polls into a victory Tuesday.

But New Hampshire voters have a reputation for confounding campaigns and upending expectations. The lessened role of Bachmann and the possible departure of Perry could lead their supporters to consider switching their vote to Paul, Gingrich, Huntsman, or Santorum, who had a late surge in Iowa and is climbing in the polls here.

While most pundits still think Romney will win here handily, there is a scenario in which his support and image are significantly degraded - and it matches the way Gingrich saw his support slide in Iowa. Romney was subjected to relatively few negative ads in Iowa about his record, partly because his competitors were busy battling each other to emerge as the anti-Romney candidate.

Compared with the millions of dollars spent on advertising in Iowa, the pace of television ads here has been slower. Huntsman has spent little on television, relying mostly on Internet ads. Santorum had not aired a single television ad here as of Monday, his campaign said. Indeed, a review by The Globe yesterday of the files at Manchester’s WMUR-TV for presidential advertising shows that only two major candidates, Romney and Paul, have made significant investments in advertising to appear during the next week. (The filings do not include those for super PACs which are supposed to be unaligned with campaigns.) While there is still time for other candidates to buy advertising, it is getting late to make a major ad buy.

Paul’s New Hampshire spokeswoman, Kate Schackai, said that the campaign has spent $2 million on ads in the state and plans to continue a significant round of commercials in the coming week, including one that calls Romney a “flip-flopper.’’

Aside from the recent ads by Paul, however, Romney has gotten a relatively free ride on the television airwaves compared with what typically happens to a front-runner in New Hampshire.

Santorum is a wild card. On the surface, his hopes here seem dim. Unlike in Iowa, where he surged partly on the basis of support from evangelicals, religion is considered much less of a factor here. New Hampshire is the nation’s second-least churchgoing state, after Vermont, according to the Gallup poll. But that oft-cited statistic does not tell the full story. The dominant faith in the state is Catholicism, which is Santorum’s religion, and his campaign hopes that provides a significant benefit.

Santorum has spent more time in the state than is widely realized. His campaign cochairman, William Cahill, a longtime New Hampshire political operative, said Santorum has spoken at more than 100 town meetings.

Huntsman predicted he will surge here just as Santorum did in Iowa, but for a different reason. Huntsman said a broader swath of voters here will participate and focus on who is the most electable nominee, while the focus in Iowa was more on social conservatism.

Asked by a voter in Peterborough if he had a message to the winner of the Iowa caucuses, Huntsman responded: “Welcome to New Hampshire. Nobody cares.’’

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish. Correspondent Shira Schoenberg contributed to this report.

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