MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In the days before the New Hampshire primary, the polling consultant for Mitt Romney's campaign, Neil Newhouse, conducted a series of three focus groups with independent New Hampshire voters.
The immediate aim was to understand Romney's appeal -- or lack of it -- among the crucial one-third of voters here: the ones who register "undeclared" and tend to be the last to decide, and therefore the most influential.
The intel was useful in the primary, but could also be of benefit if, as now seems at least likely, Romney is the GOP nominee.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney's vulnerability in the New Hampshire GOP primary -- his reputation as a "Massachusetts moderate" -- could become his strength if he is the standard-bearer, and could be critical in an effort to woo independent voters.
"He would give us a good shot here," said his New Hampshire campaign chairman, Tom Rath, a 30-year mainstay of Republican establishment politics in the state. "Voters here know his reputation from Massachusetts and he's practically a local. That's going to make it harder for the Democrats to attack him here."
Before the media caravan moves on, it is worth noting that New Hampshire and its four electoral votes will remain on the national radar screen. Especially if Romney wins the Republican nomination, this small but crucial swing state will be in play in the general election.
Even though President Barack Obama did not win the New Hampshire primary in 2008 -- a senator named Hillary Clinton did -- Obama, riding a wave of discontent about the economy and the Iraq war, won the Granite State by a nearly 10 percent margin against the GOP nominee and one-time New Hampshire favorite, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
It is not clear that Obama could repeat that performance, or even get close.
Democrats think he can. Annie McLane Kuster, a popular Democrat who narrowly lost in a bid for Congress in 2010, is running again. The state's senior senator and former governor, Jeanne Shaheen, remains a force. "The president is going to hold New Hampshire, no problem," said Kuster, an early Obama backer in 2008.
But New Hampshire's Democratic Gov. John Lynch decided last fall not to seek reelection, and Kuster will now have to defend her good friend Obama, and not spend the campaign attacking the legacy of former President George W. Bush.
And while the unemployment rate in New Hampshire has remained comparatively low, anti-war sentiment is even stronger than before (this time focused on Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere), and the economy is hardly booming, as evidenced by empty offices and storefronts along this old city's main thoroughfare, Elm Street. Like other states, New Hampshire is facing budget cuts and reductions in state services.
New England is now a Democratic presidential-election bastion, but if Romney is the nominee, the Republicans will have a chance to make a contest of it -- and force Obama to spend time and money -- both here and across the border in Massachusetts.
Even without the longtime personal ties -- the home on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee and so on -- Romney will have some room to reach out to independent voters here and counter Democratic efforts to portray him as a threatening figure. The political past he tried to obscure or explain away -- the one in which he worked with Democrats to pass all kinds of legislation in Boston -- could be a selling point, or at least a shield.
Obama and his team would have to worry about voters such as Mike Goulet, a roadside-repair truck driver who is registered "undeclared." He said that he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but won't do so again.
"I think Obama did a pretty good job given the situation he was handed after 2008," Goulet said. "I mean, he deserves credit for helping to dig us out. It could have been worse. Also, he cut back the war in Iraq. I care a lot about that. I had buddies killed over there.
"But I think it's time for a change. I give Obama credit for what he did in the past, but now I think that he really isn't quite up to the job anymore. We need somebody new."
Goulet went on to say that he had decided to vote for Romney in the primary today. "He seems ok. He knows business. I want to put someone new in there, with some new ideas. So I guess I'm for Romney."
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