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World & Nation

Mitt Romney hits his stride in New Hampshire

Projecting a front-runner’s confidence, Mitt Romney wound his way through the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state Wednesday, doing his best to charm the state’s mercurial voters just three weeks before votes are cast.

Traveling New Hampshire’s wooded byways in a 42-foot blue and white bus wrapped with his slogan — “Believe in America” — the candidate swatted away the complaints of his chief rival, Newt Gingrich, about independently financed ads that Romney partisans are leveling against the former House speaker in Iowa. He focused instead on media-magnified exchanges with voters that he hopes will solidify his lead here, in what is a must-win state for his campaign.

At a morning stop in Keene, Romney impressed 51-year-old Norman MacLeod, who was laid off three days ago from a manufacturing company, when he outlined his plans to prevent firms from shipping jobs overseas. During his next stop, at a pizza parlor in Newport, the Romney campaign picked up the tab for all of the restaurant’s patrons and sent the candidate to the counter to order a small Hawaiian pie for himself and his “sweetheart” Ann.

“Put some olives on there too, will ya?” he asked the cashier. “Isn’t that strange?”

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Settling into a booth over lunch, he assured a retired Vietnam veteran that he would keep the Social Security program intact for those nearing retirement. And he parried with skeptics like independent voter Holly Sirois, who clearly didn’t appreciate the horde of cameras in her neighborhood.

“So, Mitt, has anybody besides news cameramen been able to get close enough to you to ask you anything?” she yelled to the former Massachusetts governor as he chatted with supporters.

Romney invited her to ask a question.

“I don’t know if you’re conservative enough to hold the line against Democrats,” Sirois said. “Can you reassure me that you actually are?”

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“Well there’s a little state south of here that, you know, called Massachusetts, and a Legislature there — 85% Democrat,” he replied, “I was in office there four years, didn’t raise taxes, cut taxes 19 times, balanced the budget every year for four years,” he said, adding that he’d also worked on limiting illegal immigration. “I think if you look at my record in Massachusetts, you’ll be convinced that I’m a conservative businessman who’s had the chance of helping turn a state around.”

“I feel a little better,” Sirois said later. But she said she’d still listen to other candidates because of her distaste for the healthcare plan Romney put in place in Massachusetts.

After a few rough weeks in which he lost his lead in national polls and appeared occasionally rattled, Romney projected a relaxed air Wednesday as he traveled with a prominent group of New Hampshire leaders, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former Gov. John Sununu and former Sen. Judd Gregg.

His demeanor stemmed from two new realities: The barrage of negative ads run by his allies have taken their toll on Gingrich, depressing his poll numbers in Iowa, a state more crucial to his future than it is to Romney’s. And Romney has held on to a double-digit lead in New Hampshire, where a strong finish is required of him because of his history as a next-door governor.

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Romney made no mention of his GOP rivals during his remarks Wednesday. But at a news conference in Keene, he dismissed Gingrich’s call for him to condemn the ads put out by Restore Our Future, an independent “super PAC.”

“It’s probably a good thing for us to get this out in the air right now so people can have the chance to know what is going to come down the road if any one of us happens to become the nominee,” Romney told reporters, referring to criticisms of Gingrich contained in the ads.

“If you can’t stand the relatively modest heat in the kitchen right now, wait until Obama’s hell’s kitchen shows up.”

Romney also launched a new ad in Iowa on Wednesday on the theme of character — drawing an implicit comparison to the thrice-married Gingrich. Ann Romney, who narrates the ad, touched on that theme when she introduced her husband at a metal-cutting manufacturer in Hanover, praising him as a steadfast, reliable person who “has good judgment and always does the right thing.”

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Romney’s bus tour will wind its way through New Hampshire over the next few days, hoping to extend his support by winning over voters like MacLeod, the newly-unemployed Keene resident.

Before meeting Romney, MacLeod said he was torn between the “frankness” of Gingrich, the consistency of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and what he perceives as Romney’s broader appeal. That was “really what I wanted to hear,” he said after Romney promised to spur jobs by ending regulations and creating incentives for domestic employment.

“He answered everything I asked with the way I want it done. I liked that,” MacLeod said, adding that he was “much more decided,” but still not sure.

maeve.reston@latimes.com


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