08/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Wake of McCain, Sanford, Ensign: Grassroots Republicans Like Mitt Over Palin

Republicans get hungry fast. Having just digested the lack of leadership in the GOP, mainstream Republicans appear to be coming out of denial. The shock and awe of the election of President Obama, unease over Senator McCain, the leadership of Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich has all come fast. But the Sanford and Ensign stories have woken Republicans up.

The bruises are still sore for a Grand Old Party which has come to be seen by a huge new millennial generation as simply, "Old", but Main Street Republicans are starting to stir.

In discussions with Republican men and women, something has replaced the head shaking of a few weeks ago. The have a reply now. And it has nothing to do with Sarah Palin saying if she runs she can beat Obama. It has nothing to do with her at all.

The word is this: Mitt. Tried and true in 2008, getting comfy like the baseball "mitt."

He's running a quiet campaign, the underground kind the national press is not supposed to notice, but reminding voters he is in the hunt. Romney is living largely out of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

Republicans have more than a little buyers remorse about having nominated Senator McCain.

"If Mitt had been there when the economy went down last year, we'd be in a much better position," or some variation, is what Republicans are echoing now.

What kept him from the support he needed to get that nomination? Indecision. Republican loyalists acknowledge that while they liked his family values, they were concerned about how the country would react to a Mormon candidate.

"I like his values and couldn't care less what religion he is," says a mother in her 40's. "But it's true, I didn't know how it would play in the South and in other places. Now that seems like a small thing."

Having elected an African American President, many Republican voters are wondering if they let the perfect become the enemy of the good when they passed Romney over. Romney's campaign for president was better executed than McCain's, for sure. But McCain was a known entity, a choice made when foreign policy seemed like the main event.

Many of the Republicans who support Romney now liked him in 2008 but talked themselves out of it.

They weren't ready for him; he couldn't close the deal with them. But in a shrinking field, he now seems the elder statesman. He knows it too: not talking about the sensational stories of late. Waiting out the silly season.

If you listen early and hard, you can hear what a party wants. In New Hampshire, Republicans are looking at an opportunity they haven't seen in a long time. A wide open Senate seat as Sen. Gregg exits, an open house seat as Rep. Paul Hodes runs for Gregg's seat, and a seat Republicans feel they can pick up in Rep. Carol Shea-Porter's district.

Add to that the recent passage of gay marriage in New Hampshire, legalization of medical marijuana, and economic pain that is only getting worse as companies let go of hundreds of workers at at time, and you have Republicans seeing red.

New Hampshire is a really good focus group of 1.3 million people for whom politics is never farfrom their thinking. Take that idea national, and you can get an early read on what Republicans around the country are starting to feel. They smell vulnerable Democrats. In New Hampshire, that's enough to start to organize. And it may provide some clues to the feelings of voters elsewhere too.