Granite Reports: As frontrunner, Romney would have been daily target of GOP competitors

Saturday, Jan. 31: THE ROMNEY DECISION. Yes, Mitt Romney is out before he got into the Republican presidential race. Romney was such an overwhelming frontrunner that with him out, the field is wide open, especially in New Hampshire, correct?

 

Well, it’s true the field is wide open, but by no means would the 2016 primary have been a guaranteed repeat of 2012 for Romney. Had he stayed in, Romney’s big early lead would have closed quickly once the verbal shooting started.

 

Had Romney stayed in the race, he obviously would have remained in the first tier. His supporters say, as one would expect, that he would have won the primary. State Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said he would have won the primary “going away,” as well as the nomination and the White House.

 

But there’s this. Mitt Romney was at his high water mark during these three weeks of deliberation. As the campaign began in earnest, Republicans and GOP-leaning independents would have been reminded daily by Romney’s competitors that Romney had his chance in 2012 – and he didn’t deliver. Romney would have been portrayed as yesterday’s news, as a rich guy who was trying to remake himself. As a guy who just couldn’t let go.

 

Romney would have been the target of these and other criticisms, from Republicans – not to mention the Democratic barrage. And his lead would have eroded, and in the end, it’s  possible Romney could have lost the primary, or perhaps have won by a small margin — not by enough to count as a true “win” in The Great Expectations Game.

 

Romney got out while he was ahead, as it were, and it must have been difficult for him. And now the GOP field has a third Bush and a group of younger senators and governors and former governors who will try to define what the Republican Party will stand for going forward.

 

It should be fascinating, and New Hampshire – more than any of the other early states – will be the crucible for the GOP attempt to come up with a new formula to win the presidency..

 

UNH pollster Andy Smith also says it’s a wide open race now, but he says that the Romney lead in polling in New Hampshire and nationally was based mostly on name recognition at this early stage.

 

“Romney was the frontrunner now because he was the best known,” said Smith, “and when he was not included in polling, there was no frontrunner. We had a bunch of candidates within the 15 percent range. There are very, very few New Hampshire voters paying attention at this point, and they won’t pay attention very closely for almost another year.” So look for “undecided” leading the pack for many weeks, if not months, to come.

 

The UNH Survey Center, Smith said, is in the field right now for an upcoming WMUR poll, and he’s finding, as he has in the past, that without Romney in, likely Republican voters are all over the lot.

 

“This is going to be as close to an open field as the Republican nomination contest has seen in modern history, in the past 40 years at least,” said Smith.

 

Smith said Jeb Bush will now have “access to many of the donors that others don’t because of his father and brother, but there are a lot of Republicans looking for someone other than another Bush.”

 

At this point in the race, said Smith, candidates are not playing to the rank-and-file voters. As the line of candidates begins coming into the state next week and through February, they are “trying to get activist support and get their names in the media. This is the organizational stage. The invisible primary is what is important now.

 

Romney supporters were saddened by his decision. But for one, former Gov. John H. Sununu, the there was, in addition to sadness, a sense of relief.

 

Sununu was a top Romney surrogate in 2012 but as is well-known, was the chief of staff under former President George H.W. Bush.

 

We spoke to Sununu two hours after Romney announced his decision decision and asked how many potential candidates he had heard from in the 120 or so minutes since Romney spoke.

 

“Just three,” Sununu deadpanned. He wouldn’t name names, but you can bet Bush was among them.

 

“It makes life easier for some of us who have many friends in the race,” he said of Romney’s choice. “But there are actually a lot of people who I have close ties to, and that still makes it hard. I also have family members who might have political ambitions, so I have to see where they’re going.”

 

Sununu was not alone in receiving calls on Friday. Sources said several key Romney supporters were being courted by Bush and other campaigns.

 
The decision changed no tactics for Rand Paul however. The Kentucky senator and his team have had a concerted effort underway for many weeks of making recruitment calls in New Hampshire. We’re told he has no intention of changing his approach of trying to appeal to liberty movement Republicans while also trying to widen the base of the party.

 

Sununu said he was not surprised by Romney’s decision. Nor would he have been surprised if Romney had decided to run, he said.

 

“I knew it was a tough decision and it was good for him and good for the Republican primary process,” Sununu said. “I think the comment he made about how it might be best for the Republicans to be represented by a new generation might have some validity.”

 

Veteran political strategist Tom Rath said he was “very disappointed but pleased for Mitt Romney personally. He made the decision that was right for him and his family and he did it on his own time and in his own place. He would have been a great President.”

 

But the field now is “packed and open,” and could grow even more without Romney in the race, Rath said. “Anybody who has the energy and wherewithal” should consider running, because, he said, “there is no dominant figure.”

 

And as for the New Hampshire primary itself, Rath said, “This makes us even more relevant than we already were.”

 

Bradley said that while Romney is a “friend and great leader,” his decision means that his supporters “will continue now to do our normal job of vetting candidates with Granite Staters looking for someone who can answer the tough questions and look them in the eye and shake their hands.”

 

Bradley said Romney’s decision “helps Jeb Bush without a doubt and it probably helps Chris Christie and I suspect that Scott Walker will get a good reception. Rick Perry has a pretty good core following and Carly Fiorina is another one that people will take a look at, so I think it’s wide open.”

 

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who endorsed Romney during the 2012 primary campaign, praised Romney but did not comment on the status of the GOP field without him.

 

“Governor Romney loves our country, and I know he’ll continue to be a strong voice in our party for creating a better future and greater opportunities for all Americans. I understand and respect his decision, and I wish Mitt and Ann the very best.”

 

Conservative leader Rep. Bill O’Brien, the elected New Hampshire House Republican leader, last Saturday blasted Romney and Bush in remarks to conservatives at the Iowa Freedom Summit.

 

“I don’t know what is worse,” O’Brien told them, “nominating someone because he has been nominated twice before or nominating a liberal supporter of Common Core, because he has a familiar name.”

 

On Friday, he was conciliatory toward Romney but said the decision was good news for Republicans.

 

“I know I join many in the Republican Party who are deeply appreciative of Gov. Romney’s service to his community, in elected office, and as a standard bearer. Gov. Romney has made the right decision to defer to other candidates as we begin this nominating process, but his love of country and dedication to duty certainly means that we will have the continued benefit of his counsel.”

 
O’Brien said Romney’s decision was “a clear sign that Republican voters recognize that initial name recognition leading to apparently strong results in early polling surveys is not enough to sustain a presidential campaign this cycle. The stakes are too high and the domestic and foreign policy damage caused by the failed Obama administration too substantial for Republicans and this country to turn to the next Republican candidate in line or the most familiar name in a list.

 

“Rather, we need a dedicated conservative, true to American values, which are the values that are the foundation of the Republican promise to America, to prevail in the upcoming primaries and caucuses.

 

“We need a President who will bring job growth and prosperity to American homes by reining in federal regulations, spending and taxes. We need a President who understands American exceptionalism and that America is the necessary country, so we again can be safe in the world.  America needs a conservative Republican President and we are grateful for Gov. Romney’s decision, which brings us one step closer to that goal,” O’Brien said.

 

Response from Democrats was sparse, but Democratic National Committeewoman Kathy Sullivan said, “It’s the right decision. There weren’t enough votes for both Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush in the establishment wing of the Republican Party.”

 

 

AMIGO LINDSEY. Before all heck broke loose on Friday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham became the latest to join the potential GOP field by setting up an exploratory committee.

 

Ayotte welcomed her amigo into the field: “Lindsey is obviously a good friend and we’ve worked closely together in the Senate. He’s an effective problem solver and a strong leader on national security matters. I’ve told him that if he decides to run, he’s always welcome in New Hampshire and I’ll be glad to show him around. I expect I’ll be doing that for a lot of the candidates during the primary.”

 

 

HERE WE GO. Although no one has formally announced, yet, and the prospects for formal announcements are probably a couple of months off, February will be the month that the New Hampshire presidential primary campaign effectively begins.

 

So far, there are six potential Republican candidates slated for appearances, all happen to be Republicans. On the Democratic side, there is no sign of Hillary Clinton, but today Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will hold a house party at Arnie Arnsesen’s home in Concord.

 

Yes, Sanders may not run after all, but a gathering of political activists at a house party in New Hampshire means the process is underway.

 

The Republican February lineup is, chronologically, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton on Feb. 2; former New York Gov. George Pataki on Feb. 3 and 4; former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina on Feb. 10; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Feb. 11 and 12; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Feb. 16; former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich on Feb. 24 and, tentatively, sometime during the week of Feb. 23, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.  And on March 14, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will be in the state.

 

No Jeb Bush sighting – at least not yet.

 

We would expect that by the end of February, political operative teams for several of the would-be candidates will be in place, or falling into place, in New Hampshire, with more of the proverbial “groundwork” being laid for formal campaigns.

 

Will there be commitments from activists won by the prospective candidates as a result of their visits? A few, perhaps, but many will play the field for a while.

 
A LOOK BACK. The February before the primary has often in the past been a month for organization and so-called “testing the waters” visits. But in other years, such as 2007, the campaign was well underway by now.

 
Four years ago in the first week of February, Tim Pawlenty had already secured Sarah Crawford Stewart of B-Fresh Consulting as a paid consultant and Romney had just made a quiet visit to the state, meeting with party activists and a core group of committed supporters.

 

In the second week of February 2011, Herman Cain spoke to the Pemi-Baker Valley Republican Committee Lincoln-Reagan Dinner and Rick Santorum, after securing the services of political operative Mike Biundo (now with Rand Paul), announced the creation of a state advisory committee for his leadership PAC and named to it veteran activist Jerry Thibodeau and state Rep. Dan Tamburello. And a poll commissioned by the New Hampshire Journal and completed by Magellan Data and Mapping Strategies showed that in what was then a hypothetical 2012 general election matchup, President Barack Obama would edge Mitt Romney, 48 to 44 percent in New Hampshire.

 

Fred Karger complained that he had not been not invited to speak at the CPAC convention because he is gay and Dartmouth professor Gregory Slayton was in Sen. John Thune’s inner circle as the senator considered whether he’d run for President.

 

By the third week of February, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann had confirmed that she’d be visiting in March and a new poll had Romney far ahead of any potential challenger – Rudy Giuliani was second with 10 percent.

 

Four years prior to that,  in 2007, it was a much different story. By Feb. 1, the primary campaign was nearing full speed. George Pataki had just dropped out, but Sen. Barack Obama was beefing up a state campaign staff and former state Democratic Party Chair Joe Keefe endorsed Sen. Chris Dodd for President.

 

Romney was headed to Mt. Cube Farm in Orford to meet with Gale and Tom Thomson and Grafton County activists, and then to several other North Country stops, while then-Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was getting set to testify at the State House in favor of a constitutional amendment mandating that marriage in New Hampshire is between a man and a woman.

 

Rep. Dennis Kucinich was prepping for his first stop of the 2008 cycle while a guy named Joe Biden was set to return to the state to speak to UNH students. And then there was Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announcing that he’d be at a New Hampshire BIA luncheon the following week.

 

On Feb. 11, 2007, Hillary Clinton made her first visit to the Granite State in 10 years and was welcomed enthusiastically to town hall-style meetings attended by 350 in Berlin and more than 1,500 at the Concord High School gymnasium, where huge banners saying, “Let the Conversation Begin,” were hung from the rafters. Clinton called it a “nostalgic” visit.

 

The following day, Obama made his second visit to the state, just two days after he had formally announced his candidacy in Springfield, Ill. He visited businesses in downtown Concord and then attended a house party at the home of then-state Rep. (and now state Sen.) Bette Lasky.

 

On Feb. 15, Dodd spoke to activists at the Sulloway and Hollis law firm, and the following day, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson began a two-day campaign swing. A week later former North Carolina Senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards returned to the state for stops in Nashua, Salem, Manchester and Concord.

 

 

RUN WARREN RUN. MoveOn.org and Democracy for America are holding 220 house parties this weekend across the country to encourage Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for President.

 

In New Hampshire, there are four parties scheduled for today: in Alexandria, at the Peterborugh Town Library, at the home of Linda and Chuck Wyatt in Manchester, and at Cheers Grille and Bar in Concord.

 
#TAKELASHES4RAIF. The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, headed by Katrina-Swett, has joined the international cry for justice for Raif Badawi, who was sentenced in Saudi Arabia to be flogged with 1,000 lashes for allegedly insulting Islam.

 

Swett and six other religious freedom activists have asked the Saudi government in a letter that each of them be permitted to take 100 lashes in his place.

 

The Lantos Foundation wrote in an email to supporters that since that time, “countless individuals have reached out also offering to take lashes for Raif Badawi.

 

“We have been moved to tears by the scores of self-described ordinary people who have shown extraordinary compassion and humanity. They understand the simple truth that each one of us can make a difference,” the Foundation wrote.

 

And certainly Katrina and the Foundation have been making a difference for many years.

 

QUICK TAKES:

 

_ Lauren Zelt has joined Sen. Ayotte’s staff as press secretary. A former spokesman for the state Republican Party, Zelt’s last day at FP1 Strategies in Washington was Friday.

 

_ NHGOP chair Jennifer Horn had coffee with potential presidential hopeful and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore on Thursday at Norton’s Diner in Nashua. She says the two had “a very nice talk about New Hampshire political traditions, 2016, and how I used to bring my boys to Norton’s for pancakes on Saturday mornings when they were young.”

 

_ Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on Thursday re-introduced legislation to curb excessive spending on oil paintings of government officials. Her legislation, the Responsible Use of Taxpayer Dollars for Portraits Act of 2015, would cap the amount of taxpayer dollars that could be spent on the portraits at $20,000 (although private funds could be used if the portraits cost more) and limit the practice to those officials in the line of succession for the presidency.

 

(John DiStaso is news editor of the New Hampshire Journal and the most experienced political reporter/columnist in New Hampshire. He has been reporting on Granite State politics since 1980. Watch for updates of his Granite Reports column and of course separate stories on NHJournal.com as news breaks. He can be reached at distasoj@gmail.com and on Twitter: @jdistaso.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: John DiStaso

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