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Campaigns fight to win over voters in N.H.

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / June 27, 2012
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MANCHESTER, N.H. — President Obama won New Hampshire by nearly 10 percentage points in 2008, and even now, his advantage lingers. On a sweltering day last week, his phone bank volunteers outnumbered Romney’s backers by 3 to 1 at their respective state headquarters.

But the sense in both camps is that the fight for this state’s four electoral votes will be close and possibly pivotal in the presidential election.

“It’s going to be very competitive up here,” said Jim Merrill, who is overseeing the Romney campaign in the state.

That competition has prompted both candidates to have a strong presence in the Granite state. Obama visited Oyster River High School in Durham on Monday,and will have backing from Caroline Kennedy on Wednesday and Thursday at three locations in the state.

On June 15, Romney kicked off a six-state bus tour with well-attended appearances in Stratham and Milford.

Still, New Hampshire should be Obama’s to lose. Its 5 percent unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country, a long tradition of staunch Republican loyalty has been eroded by Massachusetts transplants, and the president could benefit from a backlash against Republican-led cuts to the state budget.

“Voters here understand that the president inherited an economy that was on the brink of deep depression, and he put the brakes on that,” said Ray Buckley, chairman of the state Democratic Party.

A poll of registered New Hampshire voters by American Research Group, released Monday, showed Obama leading Romney, 51 percent to 43 percent. The poll, however, indicated that registered voters, by 48 percent to 46 percent, disapprove of the president’s job performance.

“He hasn’t gotten it done,” Merrill said of Obama. “New Hampshire is a fiscal pocketbook state, and those are the issues that voters care about.”

They also are issues that voters will hear plenty about on television.

In the week ending June 17, according to data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group, Obama’s reelection effort spent $309,060 on ads that targeted New Hampshire, compared with $132,100 for Romney and his supporting PACs. Although Massachusetts is projected as comfortably in Obama’s ledger, much of this advertising also will bombard viewers in metropolitan Boston.

The air war will be massive, yet both campaigns are also stressing the importance of retail politicking. As a result, after spending months crisscrossing the country following his New Hampshire primary victory, Romney is ratcheting up his effort here, aides said.

“While there will be a ton of electronic and paid media, this is a state that you win from the ground,” said Tom Rath, a senior adviser to Romney and former New Hampshire attorney general. “Everything we do here is premised on turnout, and voter identification, and we will have as big an operation in the general election as in the primary.”

In 2008, both lost their primaries here — Romney to John McCain and Obama to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

If New Hampshire is won by boots on the ground, Obama has an early edge. As of Tuesday, the president’s campaign had opened 10 offices; the Republicans, two. Neither side would disclose the number of its volunteers.

“Republicans basically closed up shop after the primary, and now they’re playing catch-up,” said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

That catch-up effort will wade into a deep pool of independent voters — or undeclared, as they are called in New Hampshire -- who comprise about 40 percent of the electorate.

“Independent voters who had soured on George Bush by ’08, they’ve cooled toward Obama. Will those voters turn around?” Scala said. “You’re fighting over those centrist voters — or more precisely, voters who don’t really pay much attention to politics and turn out every four years. Maybe Obama wants them to stay home.”

No Republican presidential candidate has won the state since George W. Bush in 2000, but voter dissatisfaction with the economy appears to have abetted the Republican landslide in the 2010 legislative elections here. Since then, among other cuts, the Legislature voted to slash state aid for the university system by half.

The House minority leader, Terie Norelli, said such actions will give voters a taste of what Romney would mean for the country.

“People in New Hampshire are seeing what’s happening here, and listening to what Mitt Romney is saying,” said Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat and former speaker of the House. “This is not OK with us.”

Judi Lanza, a registered nurse who works at the Manchester Community Health Center, praised Obama’s work on health care reform. “I see people every day who don’t have health care coverage,” she said. “He has helped get the ball rolling.”

Despite working at the health center, and picking up per-diem shifts at Elliot Hospital here, she volunteers in the evenings at the Obama phone bank.

“I made a promise to President Obama that we’re going to turn Goffstown blue,” Lanza, 50, said of her hometown, where she is a neighborhood team leader. That promise, she said, prompted a kiss on her cheek from the president during a March appearance in Nashua.

Obama is familiar in New Hampshire, where he has made many visits dating from the 2008 primary election. But so is Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who owns a summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee.

To Rath, the Romney adviser, that familiarity helps create a comfort level that extends beyond the personal to the political. “He is the kind of Republican who does very well here. He speaks the New Hampshire language” of fiscal rectitude and small government, Rath said.

“Romney is the expert in turning things around — in business, government, and the Olympics,” said Donna Pare, 56, who drove to Romney headquarters from her home in Acton, Mass., to make phone calls. “I’ve had to live four years now with Obama destroying our country when Romney could be fixing it.”

On social issues, Romney’s move to the right on issues such as abortion probably will not hurt him among New Hampshire supporters who are more fiscally than socially conservative, said Scala.

“They tend to give him a wink and a nod on that one,” Scala said, with the expectation that hot-button social issues would not be high on his list of presidential priorities.

That priority is jobs, and Scala and Republican strategists said the New Hampshire electorate is likely to weigh the nation’s economic well-being as much as the state’s when choosing a president.

“A lot of voters, when asked, tend to look more national than local,” Scala said. In New Hampshire, Rath added, “economic angst goes beyond the employment figure.”

A tight race is the consensus, but Scala is willing to make a prediction.

“If it’s basically a jump ball on Election Day, I think probably that the state goes to Obama by a little bit,” Scala said. “I would put a thumb on the scale for Obama in New Hampshire, but not the whole hand.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

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