MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The morning after his victory in Iowa, Mitt Romney's first event here in the state where he enjoys a huge home-field advantage offered a rude awakening.
Three of the first four questioners were openly hostile to Romney, although one of them was an Occupy Manchester activist. And even the endorsement and appearance of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) failed to arouse much of a reaction from the Granite Staters in attendance.
But campaign aides shrugged off the decidedly tepid reception at Romney's first town-hall meeting in New Hampshire after his narrow win over former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in the Iowa caucuses. They said that it was a typical New Hampshire town hall, with the candidate facing tough questions from the state's notoriously independent-minded voters.
Romney did engage ably with the questioners, showing a grasp of business and policy that he rarely has before on the campaign trail.
And much of the blame probably lay with campaign planners, who scheduled Romney for an event at a time when most politically active people are working and put him in front of an audience made up in part of apathetic high school students. They also rushed McCain out onto the big stage so he could dominate the cable news during the afternoon, rather than waiting for an early-evening town hall in Peterborough, one of McCain's favorite settings in the state.
Nevertheless, the tone of the event was a sharp break from the joyful mood that had accompanied the former Massachusetts governor onto a charter plane from Iowa earlier that morning, along with a swarm of press befitting a presidential frontrunner.
The first question for Romney came from Mark Provost, who identified himself as a participant in Occupy Boston and Occupy Manchester. Provost, 31, asked Romney if he would revise his statement that "corporations are people" to "corporations are abusive people."
Romney went at Provost, asking him what he thought happened to corporations' profits. Provost -- who later told The Huffington Post that he is an "economic journalist" who traded stocks for several years on his own -- answered in detail, arguing that corporate profits go "to the 1 percent of Americans who own 90 percent of the stocks."
Romney and Provost traded comments back and forth for a moment, before Romney cut him off and dove into a lengthy monologue declaring that corporate profits often affect the retirement accounts of middle-class Americans and, more broadly, that financial success creates jobs (read a transcript of the exchange here). Provost afterward said he thought Romney dodged his questions about income inequality and excessive CEO bonuses.
Another questioner asked Romney why he was willing to let health care costs rise, although when Romney challenged her assertion, she stumbled and could not back up her statement. Then another woman said that the trickle-down economics of the Reagan era had not helped her at all; she got into a back-and-forth with Romney.
"Excuse me, you've had your chance," Romney finally said. But she continued to talk, prompting Romney to say with a note of exasperation, "OK, she says she loves this country."
The woman remained standing and yelled at Romney, accusing him of insulting her. Romney tried to get control of the situation.
"For those who didn't hear, she says she loves this country and don't put any Asians down. I hope I haven't put any Asians down," he said. "I welcome people from all over the world."
Even before the question-and-answer turbulence, the crowd's response to speeches from McCain, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and former Gov. John Sununu was remarkably flat. A small portion of the audience offered some limited enthusiasm.
"It's with some nostalgia that I return to this place that I love so well," said McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary both times he ran for president, in 2000 and 2008.
In 2008, when they were both candidates for the nomination, McCain and Romney shared an obvious dislike of each other. But after Romney withdrew from the race, he was a tireless and faithful surrogate for McCain. On Wednesday, it was McCain's turn to return the favor.
McCain asked voters to give Romney the win here and to "catapult him on to victory in a very short period of time."
And McCain attacked the president with vigor.
"Our message to President Barack Obama is you can run but you can't hide from your record of making this country bankrupt, of destroying national security, and of making this country one that we have to restore," McCain said.
The crowd responded more warmly to McCain than they did to Romney, but it still felt as if McCain was straining to inspire even a modicum of excitement.
Earlier on Wednesday, the only thing that could spoil Romney's good mood was a full security screening at the airport while a small gaggle of reporters stood mere feet away, watching. Romney bore a pained look on his face as a Transportation Security Administration agent ran her hand through his garment bag, although he quickly tamped down his irritation.
Before boarding the plane, he walked up to Dave Kochel, the Republican consultant who ran his Iowa campaign, and greeted him jokingly, "Hey, Landslide!" As Romney and his wife, Ann, walked onto the charter plane bound for New Hampshire, his aides and advisers seated in the first few rows applauded. Romney then thanked each of them individually.
There were grins and hugs all around, despite the fact that Romney beat Santorum by a mere eight votes.
"Thank you, guys. What a job you did! Amazing!" Romney told a few aides.
For the past year, the Romney campaign had considered a finish anywhere in the top three in Iowa as utterly desirable. But campaign aides allowed expectations to get out of hand in the days immediately before the caucuses, putting something of a dent in their showing there.
The test now is to increase Romney's support among Republican voters and to prevent someone like Santorum from gaining too much ground while fending off attacks from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has signaled he will be coming after Romney.
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