The sound of camera shutters all but drowned out the applause at the Romney rally in Rochester this morning. Introduced by former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Romney was playing the role of favorite son.
He has reason to be secure, if not complacent. Recent polls give him more than a 20-point lead on his nearest rival, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, and more than 30 points over former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and up-and-comer Rick Santorum, who very nearly beat Romney in Iowa last week. Texas governor Rick Perry has all but disappeared from view, preferring to concentrate on the next race, in South Carolina.
But the New Hampshire primary could still be up for grabs: A survey by local television station WMUR showed that as of Sunday morning, just two days before the nation's first primary, 63 percent of New Hampshire voters were undecided.
Certainly the crowd at Romney event at the Rochester Opera House would not give rise to undue optimism. The media took up about half of the space, with volunteers and "political tourists" from neighboring states supplying much of the rest of the mass of people, about 700 in all. A busload of students from Hofstra University, in Long Island, New York, was also in attendance, and were in no mood to be generous.
"I did not hear anything I haven't heard dozens of times before," said Toby, one of the Hofstra students.
Two young women from the university were also skeptical.
"I came because I cannot understand why Romney is the presumed winner when nobody really likes him," said one.
This was a common theme in conversations among those in the non-media seats; several heads turned and nodded in agreement.
At the rally Romney delivered his standard fare, strong on patriotism and liberty, a bit short on substance. He decried Barack Obama's attempts to undermine core American values by turning the country into a "European welfare state."
"This president wants to replace ambition with envy," he said, to polite applause. "This will keep us from becoming one nation, under God."
The New Hampshire primary is attracting more than its share of attention, due to its status as the first formal vote of the presidential campaign. Last week's Iowa caucuses were non-binding, and will send no delegates to the Republican national convention. There is a sense here in New Hampshire that this one is for keeps. But the state's uncomproising motto — "Live Free or Die" — and independent, not to say contrarian, voters, are proving a tough sell.
The candidates held an unprecedented two debates within 10 hours — one Saturday night at St. Anselm's College, another in Concord on Sunday morning. The evening debate was a fairly tame affair, but the candidates were a bit more combative on Sunday.
Moderator David Gregory started the ball rolling by asking all the participants why Mitt Romney would not be a suitable nominee. Most were happy to jump on the frontrunner, with Gingrich deriding him for being "a timid Massachsuetts moderate."
The pair had squared off in Iowa, with a Super Pac that supported Romney devoting signficiant time and money to attack ads targeting Gingrich. The former speaker got a bit of his own back Sunday morning, though, at one point challenging Romney to quit his "pious baloney," and mocking him for being overly confident.
Jon Huntsman was given some chance to shine in the debates, although his cerebral style and habit of breaking into Mandarin Chinese are seen by some as off-putting.
Santorum was the "not-Romney" candidate to watch this weekend, with his Iowa momentum propelling him forward.
In Hollis on Saturday, the scene was typical New England: a village green, a country church, and an historic barn, crammed to the rafters with skeptical voters, still looking for an alternative to the presumptive nominee.
The buttons and brochures said Santorum, but the crowd was fairly cool.
“I’m still persuadable,” said one young man, who described himself as a schoolteacher.
“This is what we call ‘tire-kicking’ up here,” said another. “We don’t just vote for a candidate, we have to take him out for a spin.”
The several hundred spectators that turned out to see Santorum in Lawrence Barn were not there to be charmed, they were there to be convinced.
State Senator Jim Luther introduced Santorum as “the real deal,” and told the audience that he was the best choice in this “most dangerous situation we have seen in decades.”
But as Santorum tried to outline his plans for a better America, hecklers in the crowd were insistent on giving him a hard time. The self-described devout Catholic is a staunch social conservative. He told the crowd in Hollis that he would like to see landmark cases Roe v. Wade and Griswold v. Connecticut, which carved out reproductive rights for American women, overturned.
Some in the crowd were obviously swayed. Gwen, perched on a beam, nodded as Santorum spoke.
“I like that he is against abortion,” she said shyly, when asked why she was there. But she won’t be voting in this election — she is only 12 years old.
“I think he did pretty well,” said Glen, a Rhode Island resident who had come up for the show. “Romney and Huntsman were just speaking in cliches, but Santorum really made contact with the people. I liked that.”
But as Santorum left Lawrence Barn, he met a less friendly contingent.
“You said that states should decide the issues,” said one woman who approached the candidate as he headed for his bus. "New Hampshire has decided on gay marriage. It is legal here, and we want to keep it that way.”
Santorum's adamant opposition to gay marriage earned him boos at a recent New Hampshire rally. In this situation, however, he declined to debate the issue and just smiled noncommitally and got on his bus.
Some New Hampshire residents will be very happy when the fuss is over.
While some relish the spotlight, others are heartily sick of the media onslaught and the phone surveys that have become a major irritant in daily life.
“I am getting five or six phone surveys per day,” said one disgruntled Rochester resident. “I tell them I don’t like any of the candidates, that I am a Democrat. They try and tell me I have to choose one of the Republicans. Well, I don’t.”