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The Real N.H. Showdown Comes In November

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Barack Obama needs to get himself to New Hampshire, pronto. There are some awfully discombobulated voters up here, and if he has any hope of holding onto the state next fall, he’s going to need to have a serious talk with them.

That’s my main takeaway from Mitt Romney’s successful wearing down of a skeptical electorate to the point where, after six years of having him showing up at their tiniest parades and showering cash on their lowliest of elected officials, it finally said: Uncle. Now will you please go to South Carolina?

Romney, of course, is framing his 38 percent share -- a notch more than what John McCain got in winning the state four years ago -- as a monumental triumph. I already saw this spin in the works a few days ago, when I was chatting with New Hampshire state senator Jeb Bradley, a former congressman and major Romney backer in the state. Why was Romney doing so much better in the state this year than he did four years ago? I asked. Was it the weaker, McCain-less field? Oh no, Bradley said: “A weaker field? How could a field with Speaker Gingrich in it be a weaker field? Rick Santorum has surged and Rick Perry, while he hasn’t done too well so far, has a good record in Texas. This is actually a stronger field, I’d say.”

Back in the real world, Romney’s win should be regarded with about as much awe as those bumper stickers that only half-ironically declare, “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.” Yay, your car drives up mountains that people climb on foot! When the man who ties with you in the Iowa caucuses speaks at an event without a working microphone on the night before the New Hampshire primary, it suggests something less than a fair fight.

But enough of that. Let me share with you some of the conversations I had with voters today at a polling station in Concord -- a church in an older, middle/working-class part of town -- to give some hint of how screwy this primary season has been, and what a state of disarray voters seem to be in. It was an admittedly small sample, but it included:

1. Anne Field, an independent who voted for Obama in the 2008 general election but voted for Romney today. Field is near retirement with her husband, who runs a small plumbing business for which she does the bookkeeping. Business has rebounded pretty well since 2008-09, but she’s worried about their retirement investments, and worried most of all about her daughter, who, with a master’s degree in marketing at age 27, is having trouble finding work. Here’s the thing: Field blames the bad economy on Republican rule last decade, and says Obama was left with an awful mess. She still thinks Obama is a “brilliant, brilliant speaker.” She appreciates that her investments have rebounded quite a bit since 2009, and she also is hoping for good things from Obamacare -- she’s heard good reviews from Massachusetts friend about the state’s law on which Obamacare was modeled. But she’s going to vote for Romney this fall anyway. “I just want things to get better for the United States,” she said. “It’s scary out there. I just want to get things going again. And Romney’s done some good things.” Was it his business experience? I asked. Did she see Romney’s Bain Capital years as a plus or a negative, as Obama and Romney’s rivals are trying to cast it. “I think he’s done more good than bad,” she said. “Sure, he had to agglomerate some people to get to where he was. He had to shave off some people. But I think that’s also what [the government] needs now. That’s the way business is -- there are times you have to cut things and be tough. That’s what’s we need in America now, someone to be tough.” As for Obamacare, she’s for it in principle but still  doubtful. “Not that I’m totally against it -- I’m skeptical. I want it to work, but it makes me nervous, because so many things the government does don’t work.” Finally, I came back to her decision to back Romney even though she blames Republican policies for our current pass. She shrugged and smiled. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe I don’t have very good logic.”

2. Leigh MacDonald, a well-spoken massage therapist in her thirties, is an independent who leans Democratic but turned out to vote in the Republican primary mainly because she cannot abide Romney and wanted to vote for one of his rivals. “He’s too on the surface,” she said. “He’s the pretty boy and I don’t like pretty boys.” She is staunchly pro-choice, she mentioned, so I assumed she was going to say she voted for Jon Huntsman, who, while anti-abortion, emphasizes it less than the other Republicans in the field. But no: MacDonald voted for Rick Santorum. What? I said. What about the abortion issue? Well, she’d heard that Santorum actually wasn’t too pro-life, that he was realistic on the issue. (Hmmm.) She had first thought about Ron Paul, who was a “breath of fresh air,” but she settled on Santorum because she doesn’t care for Paul’s non-interventionism. But above all, she just liked the way Santorum came across. “He wasn’t wishy washy," she said. "For the most part, he seemed like a good guy. He answered questions and didn’t try to beat around the bush.”

3. A 23-year-old man who works at Concord Hospital, who voted for Romney and declined to let me use his name. He said he voted for Romney “because of the health care.” I asked, did he mean because Romney passed universal health care in Massachusetts, or because Romney is now outspokenly opposed to the national health care law that Obama passed, based on Romney’s law? The question seemed to stump the young man. He said that he had voted for Romney because he is registered Republican and “Romney is the only Republican I know anything about." And finally, he said that, yes, he was opposed to the national law. “If you don’t have insurance, tough shit,” he said. Those without insurance include his boyfriend, who had come to the polls with him to vote for Obama in the Democratic primary.

To be sure, there were also the more typical savvy voters of New Hampshire lore. Rob McCullen, who works for the state Department of Transportation, said he was torn between Santorum, whose beliefs he felt most drawn to, and Romney, who he thought had a better chance of beating Obama but whose convictions McCullen doubted. “I wish he felt more strongly on some things,” he said. But he went with Romney in the end. I asked what he made of Romney’s Bain Capital experience. “His business experience would be good for the economy.” What about the layoffs that came with his Bain success? “He’s a businessman. He had to do what he had to do to be good at business.” Then there was David Harris, a state employee who changed his registration from Democratic to independent so he could vote for Huntsman. “I did not cast my vote for the person that would be easiest [for Obama] to slap down. I want him to have a worthy competitor. And I want to show that New Hampshire isn’t going for a complete bunch of idiots.”

I spoke to several other people during the day -- Democrats and left-leaning independents -- who said they were voting for Huntsman for similar reasons. This made me start to doubt the conclusion that I drew after seeing Huntsman on Sunday in Keene -- that his purported surge was limited at best. I came to his election night party at a bar here just in case there was going to be a big Gene McCarthy-Bill Clinton second-place finish to be spun as a moral victory. The crowd -- a distinctly youthful and cosmopolitan assortment (there was even a large Scandinavian contingent) -- seemed to be thinking the same thing. But then the returns started coming in, showing Huntsman well behind the over-achieving Paul, and the chants that his loyalists occasionally started up became less sustained. When the candidate emerged, he did his best to conjure momentum -- “We’re in the hunt!” but the only real zip in the room was coming from the fire-engine red lipstick that the now-famous Huntsman daughters were sporting. Huntsman may claim that he’s got a “ticket to ride” to South Carolina, and who knows, maybe Daddy Huntsman will finally open up the family vault to make that happen. More telling was the look of regret on the faces of his supporters, including one particularly bereft-looking young man beside me. I asked him, a 23-year-old college student by the name of Bill Caldwell, whether he thought Huntsman could compete in South Carolina. “He’ll have trouble in the South,” Caldwell said. “It’s more conservative there.” But then it turned out that Caldwell wasn’t as bereft as he’d appeared. He’s actually a staunch Obama supporter who voted for him in 2008 and plans to again. And he’s from Massachusetts -- Athol, near the state line. “I had this right in my backyard, so why not come up?” he said.

No, such admirers will not win you a Republican primary in 2012. Mitt Romney has yet to be truly tested. Onward to the general election.