McCain tries to turn corner in N.H.

Times Staff Writers

In an increasingly fractured Republican race, three top presidential hopefuls fanned out across New Hampshire on Monday, with Mitt Romney seeking to downplay expectations, John McCain basking in key endorsements and Rudolph W. Giuliani pressing his case to siphon votes from Romney, the leader here.

McCain was joined at his first stop by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic vice presidential candidate turned independent, who officially endorsed the Arizona senator Monday.

McCain’s campaign hopes the endorsement will broaden his appeal to independent voters, who can register to vote on election day in either primary. Such voters helped boost McCain to an 18-point victory here over George W. Bush in 2000.


He received the backing over the weekend of New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Herald, the Boston Globe and the Des Moines Register, although he has placed less emphasis on Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses.

With his efforts heavily concentrated on New Hampshire, where ballots will be cast five days later, McCain has managed to rebuild some support after hitting a low this summer when his once-dominant campaign sank to fourth place in the state behind Romney, Giuliani and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

Many core Republican voters here were turned off by his push for legislation that would have created a path to citizenship for some of the nation’s more than 12 million illegal immigrants. But McCain has since explained to voters, as he did in Concord on Monday night, that he moved too hastily on those plans without first making sure the borders were secure.

Some think that revised message and positive headlines about the “surge” in Iraq, which he backed, are helping draw voters into his camp.

Though McCain is jockeying with Giuliani for second place here, some 10 points behind Romney, few political analysts are discounting the possibility of a McCain resurgence.

“This is where the Iowa factor, the electability factor, comes in,” said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “If Romney gets beaten in Iowa, the perception of him as being an electable candidate is going to drop.”


Despite his lead in New Hampshire, Romney suggested that even a second-place finish here would not mark the end of his campaign.

After he noted that Bill Clinton had finished second here in 1992, Romney said at a Londonderry news conference: “The political wins, and the implication of them, is something I’ll leave to others. But typically one says coming out of Iowa there are three tickets and coming out of New Hampshire there are a couple of tickets, and I’m hoping to pull a ticket from both of those states, at least.”

Romney’s remarks underscored the building pressure on his campaign and the unpredictability of the New Hampshire contest, where more than 40% of likely Republican voters have yet to make up their minds.

Even though former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has yet to become a force in New Hampshire, he was clearly Romney’s chief target during the Londonderry news conference.

Romney’s campaign had just released a new tough new ad criticizing Huckabee on crime, arguing that Huckabee granted 1,033 pardons and commuted the sentences of 12 convicted murderers. The ad homed in on sentences for methamphetamine and claimed that Romney “got tough on drugs like meth” while Huckabee reduced penalties for manufacturing it.

Huckabee, leading in most Iowa polls, dismissed the criticism during his own media event in Los Angeles, where he noted that he oversaw executions 16 times. That’s something Romney never did in Massachusetts, which has no death penalty.


In a statement, a Huckabee spokeswoman said that even after the reductions, sentences for methamphetamine-related crimes were tougher in Arkansas than in Massachusetts.

The statement also noted that the number of clemency applications is high in Arkansas -- Huckabee faced more than 8,600 -- because state law allows anyone convicted of a crime or anyone in prison to apply.

Slipping in the polls nationally, Giuliani also made several stops in New Hampshire on Monday and appeared to be retooling his efforts in hopes of encroaching on Romney’s success.

He addressed a gathering of white-collar employees at Goss International, a major manufacturer of printing presses.

An employee told Giuliani, who supports abortion rights and enforced strict gun-control laws in New York City, that he was confused about “how you can support a woman’s right to choose, then enforce a handgun ban against . . . law-abiding citizens in your own city.”

Giuliani replied that although the Constitution “gives you the right to have a firearm for any purpose, it allows some limitations. . . . When I came into office, I was faced with a massive amount of murder going on . . . and I had to do something about it. I used the gun laws very aggressively in New York.”


Richard D. Wamsley, 57, Goss’ director of engineering, said afterward that he was disappointed by those answers.

He thought Giuliani seemed unfocused and tended “to drift.”

“I expect somebody who is going to be in a position of power like the president to be very clear-thinking,” said Wamsley, who came to the meeting undecided between Giuliani and McCain and departed leaning toward McCain.

“More than anything else,” Wamsley said of McCain, “it’s his background. He is a true hero. I think what Giuliani did and how he behaved during the 9/11 crisis was commendable, but I am not sure he did anything out of the ordinary.”


Times staff writers Joe Mathews and Phil Willon contributed to this report.