“Heh heh, we’re here, after that landslide in Iowa … really like to do a little better here … like to double that. Heh heh.”

On a makeshift stage in a school gymnasium — “Home of the Astros”, the scoreboard reads, “courtesy, respect, responsibility” — Mitt Romney is working the room. It’s 8am on a Saturday morning, a raw day, and the doors let the cold air in, as people stream through. They’ve been coming in for half an hour or more, rugged up New Englanders in padded windbreakers, and jackets made from horse-blankets, in the hundreds, to the undisguised amazement of the travelling media contingent.

Outside, Romney staffers are pushing stickers and badges, and pushing them hard.

“Take a sticker, take a sticker”.

People apply them to their lapels, without much enthusiasm. Many of them don’t seem to have much enthusiasm for any part of the process at all, circled around the stage. Perhaps, it’s the early morning, perhaps it’s the New Hampshire reserve.

But most likely, it’s Mitt Romney. He’s trying to be casual, relaxed and engaging, and it’s not working. No doubt no one associated with him expected that it would, but perhaps they expected they might knock a few edges off. They’ve dressed Mitt casual, in blue jeans, and a matching V-neck sweater, the shiny black-silver hair has a hair or two stray, and he’s trying to put us at our ease.

“We’re family here. We got family here! New Hampshire, this is personal for us!”

The audience sounds far from sold, and Mitt doesn’t sound too convinced either. He’s too enthusiastic, too rote, he’s doing the whole thing just a little too fast. Over three quarters of an hour ranging over the usual material — family came here from Wales, make a better life, President who wants a European social state, American military has to stay 10 times nearest rival, my favourite verse of America The Beautiful … — the atmosphere winds down rather than up. Everything about it, from the generic location to the general issue, has the air of a match.com date that started unpromisingly, and lived up to expectations.

You could barely blame Romney for being scarce able to keep the show on the road. He has, after all, been running for the nomination since 2007. Having lost to John McCain in 2008, in a race in which he presented as the official conservative, he could have expected, if not a clear run, then at least respectful consideration from the party’s right-wing base. Instead, they have taunted him by swinging their support behind every crackpot, extremist and libertarian, from crazy-lady Michele Bachmann to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum, swinging their support behind each in turn. The Republican Party establishment who back him had already resigned themselves to some major “push-back” from the right-wing base — they did not expect that the process would be so bloody-minded.

The concerted challenge has pushed Romney into a gruelling defensive campaign, nailing down every possible opening by which the Right might gain an entrance. He had been intending to sit out the Iowa caucuses on January 3 — the near-joke contest, which are open to all voters, and non-binding on selected delegates to boot. But the prospect that his victory in New Hampshire might be sandwiched amid a series of defeats in the other early contests (Iowa January 3, New Hampshire January 10, South Carolina January 21, Florida January 31), pushed him to a last-minute all-out effort, which garnered an eight-vote victory against the latest and least likely standard bearer, Catholic uber-conservative Rick Santorum.

In New Hampshire he’s been pushed to a deeper and longer campaign that would otherwise be required by the manic energy of the Ron Paul campaign, a now wholly insurgent force on the right, with additional foot soldiers drawn substantially from the anti-war left, and thus outnumbering every other campaign by about three-to-one. Across the granite state, the Paulites are everywhere. Other campaigns have festooned the state with road signs and yard signs; the Paul campaign seems to have people at every traffic light and roundabout waving with a degree of genuine enthusiasm that Romney could do with a measure more of, and the Paulites a decided amount less. Northern New Englanders, in their horse blankets and dad jeans, look like the cast of Gossip Girl compared to the Paulites, who favour downmarket Trot style.

Through immense hard work, they’ve pushed Ron Paul — a man who sounds like Chomsky, when he doesn’t sound like Ayn Rand — into second place, running at 20-21%, against Romney’s 40% rating, with Santorum a distant third at about 10%. Romney must see them occasionally, from his motorcade, and grind his teeth to nubbins. Had he left them to run wild, who knows where his rating would be now? So he’s been grinding out appearances ever since, to nail down a victory he could already count on, and it shows in his demeanour.

In the gym, the feeling seems to be returned. The crowd is solid Republican, and the country club contingent who form his base have duly turned out — they are leaner, with golden skin, and their two children look and dress like their corresponding parent — and most of them share Romney’s “moderate” policies, but they don’t like Mitt’s presumption that he’s local, by virtue of having been a one-term Massachusetts governor. “We’re family here” gets a tepid reaction, and it gets worse when Romney’s wife comes out. Whatever conversation went into deciding on Mitt’s smart casual, Madame Romney wasn’t having any of it, draped in an off-white knit piece from head-to-foot that wouldn’t leave much change out of most attendees’ annual wage. “Oh yes, we’re family in New Hampshire. We keep a summer house here,” she said and that was it for the crowd.

Afterwards, reasons for the lack of enthusiasm became obvious. Despite the stickers, actual Romney supporters were thin on the ground. As Romney left to the tune of, of course, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a 40-year-old rock song, working a knot of genuine enthusiasts, the press hit the ground running, scarfing for vox pops. Ten minutes later they were trading them.

“I’ve spoken to 10 people, I’ve got one New Hampshire supporter — and he’s leaning towards [John] Huntsman,” one told another. “Oh where?” she said, and ran off.

Camera crews were queued up two and three deep on the actual voters who were there. Those leaving, into the raw wind, and past the white clapboard houses surrounding the school found themselves yelled at by the Paulites, accusing them of being dupes of shadowy powers.

“Wall Street candidate bought and sold,” they yelled, confusing those for whom, as far as the Republican Party went, that was rather the point.

Out another exit left the Romney motorcade, en route to a hardware store somewhere in the mid-state, and then a house party, and then …

*Guy Rundle will travel to all the key states and election battlegrounds as he tracks the Republican candidates and Barack Obama in the run to November. But you can only read his exclusive reports if you subscribe — take out a FREE 21-day trial or subscribe now.

Peter Fray

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