Huffpost Politics

New Hampshire Primary: Mitt Romney Has Tough Time Winning Over Republican Voters

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HOLLIS, N.H. -- John Anderson, a New Hampshire Republican activist, is deciding between former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul when he heads to the polls on Tuesday. Asked what he thinks of Mitt Romney, the field's front-runner, the retired construction worker wrinkles his nose.

"My problem with him is he's been on both sides of every issue that there possibly is," the resident of the town of Hollis said, citing the former Massachusetts governor's push for health care reform in his state but repudiation of a similar federal program now. "If Gov. Romney is the candidate for the Republican Party, he'll have my vote. But in the primary, most of us are having a real terrible time figuring out where to go."

Romney is supposed to be a shoo-in in New Hampshire, where he owns a vacation home and has maintained a nearly constant presence since his 2008 presidential bid. But even as polls suggest he's heading for victory in the state's first-in-the-nation primary, many Republicans say they're exploring other options and have concerns about Romney's trustworthiness and shifts on key issues.

Interviews across the state found GOP voters eager to replace President Barack Obama. But they're also disillusioned with Washington in general and wary of politicians' promises.

"I just distrust government. What concerns me in this election is honesty," Bob Decker of Rumney said, adding he was deciding between Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Romney has held packed rallies across the state, and voters crowd the stage afterward for autographs and photos. But when asked why they support him, voters don't typically say they're thrilled or even particularly excited about him.

Instead, they say, he's steady. And that's a marked contrast from other candidates who have risen in polls only to fall fast.

"He's just the sturdiest," said Brian Starling, who attended a Romney rally in Bedford. "He hasn't had any of the ups and downs."

Starling said he was undecided until this weekend, though he supported Romney in the 2008 presidential primary here.

With New Hampshire's unemployment rate at a far-below-average 5.2 percent, many voters here sounded less concerned with the national economy than they are with integrity and character of the candidates. For those voters, Romney often comes up short.

"I don't think he's as conservative as he'd like people to believe," Gilford resident Thelma Miller said, adding she's inclined to support Santorum instead.

Geologist Hugh Conaghey said he was concerned that Romney brings "a level of gamesmanship" to politics. "So you have to consider that when you ask if you can trust him," the New Boston resident said.

Angel Pendergrass, who attended a Ron Paul rally in Meredith, put it more bluntly. Romney "flip-flops too much for me, point blank," she said.

As they evaluate the other candidates in the field, voters say they're impressed with Gingrich's intelligence, Santorum's conservative convictions, Paul's adherence to the Constitution and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's experience in government. But nearly all said a candidate's ability to beat Obama remains a top priority.

Polling of Iowa caucus participants found Romney was viewed as far and away the most electable in the GOP field. That factor helped him narrowly prevail in the contest despite spending limited time and resources in the state.

But some New Hampshire voters remain unconvinced, insisting they are looking at a range of factors to determine the strongest candidate.

"I keep hearing about how Romney's the most electable. I like Romney, but he's not my first choice," Rochester resident Ed Cormier said, citing defense and foreign policy as his biggest electoral concerns. The medical supply salesman said he was initially attracted to Rick Perry and later Herman Cain. He's now considering Gingrich and attended a rally for him in Wolfeboro.

Vincent Balukonis, a retired airline pilot from Salem, said he thinks Romney is too moderate to rally the Republican base in November.

"He's been tainted by Massachusetts too much. He had to accommodate his political philosophy to appeal to the Massachusetts average voter," Balukonis said, adding he is leaning toward Santorum.

Some voters believe a more moderate candidate is exactly what Republicans need to win over swing voters who supported Obama last time. But many are eyeing candidates other than Romney.

"Everyone's saying, `We need a conservative, we need a conservative,' but you're not going to win a general election that way. You have to have centrist ideas," said Don Millbrand, a mechanical engineer from Bristol who is supporting Huntsman. Millbrand defended Huntsman's service as Obama's ambassador to China, saying it was valuable government experience.

Wolfeboro resident Robin Caine calls herself a centrist and said she admires Romney's family and 43-year marriage to his wife, Ann. But Caine said she was uncomfortable with Romney's shifts on issues and would support Paul instead.

"You can't waver on foundation, on values," Caine said. "Ron Paul is consistent, he's authentic. He's proven himself over 30 years."

To be sure, voters have ruled out some candidates based on electability alone.

Carol Gittzus, of Plymouth called Gingrich "one of the smartest men in the country," but said she doesn't think he'd prevail against Obama. "We're all worried about this election," she said.

Many voters express admiration for Santorum, who battled Romney to a virtual tie in Iowa's caucuses last week to emerge as a top challenger. While Santorum's near-win breathed new life into his candidacy, his strict social conservatism is seen as a liability in New Hampshire, where Republicans are far more secular than they are in Iowa.

But Gail DiMasi of Munsonville said she refuses to buy into the Romney electability argument. She said she likes Santorum's bluntness and wants to vote for someone she's excited about.

DiMasi said she believes Romney can beat Obama. "But that's not the reason to vote for someone. I want more," she said.

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Associated Press writers Charles Babington, Steve Peoples, Philip Elliott, Kasie Hunt and Holly Ramer contributed to this report.

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