MANCHESTER, N.H. — When Scott Brown stepped off the stage at a Nashua meeting of Republican leaders Friday, it seemed all of New Hampshire was abuzz over the former US Senator for Massachusetts.
Brown’s announcement that he would start building a campaign for the US Senate in New Hampshire was the subject of a media frenzy and came as a relief to Republican strategists eager to make incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen fight a tough, expensive race against a brand-name candidate.
But GOP officials in attendance Friday were quick to caution that Brown would need to earn every vote with a strong ground game in this famously independent state.
And interviews Saturday with New Hampshire residents gave credence to that warning, even suggesting Brown’s name recognition is not as widespread as media reports have assumed and Republicans have hoped.
“Who is Scott Brown?” shrugged Kyle Demers on Saturday morning over his breakfast at the Red Arrow diner in Manchester, a perennial stop on the presidential campaign trail.
Demers is not alone in his unfamiliarity with Brown. A poll conducted in late January by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found 27 percent of New Hampshire adults did not know enough about Brown to have a any opinion of him. Thirty-eight percent had an unfavorable opinion of him, according to the survey, while 27 percent held a favorable view.
The majority of New Hampshire voters interviewed Saturday did know Brown’s name. But most Granite State residents said they were prepared to wait and see how Brown conducts his campaign and where he stands on key issues before making up their minds.
As more voters get to know him, Brown may have to walk a winding road between the widely disparate views they expressed Saturday.
Some conservative Republicans slammed Brown as a too-liberal “Taxachusetts RINO” — Republican-in-name-only — and said his experience as a senator from Massachusetts is mostly a liability. For them, the only question is whether they will hold their nose and vote for Brown to help oust Shaheen.
“It’s going to be a close call. I’ll have to see what he’s really all about,” said Nick Peck, a 66-year-old Nashua resident, as he picked up some gun parts from Pete’s Gun & Tackle in Hudson. “I won’t vote for him just because I’m a Republican. I’m not going to give a vote to somebody who doesn’t deserve it.”
Peck, who said he did not vote in the 2012 presidential election because he disliked Republican nominee Mitt Romney, also echoed a criticism voiced by New Hampshire residents from across the political spectrum Saturday: Scott Brown is a carpetbagger.
“If I go to New York and have a vacation home down there, I’m not a New Yorker,” Peck chuckled. “He’s not a New Hampshire person.”
While some wring their hands over Brown’s status as a New Hampshirite, others have raised their eyebrows because he is a resident of the well-off coastal town of Rye.
“Rye is old-wealth New Hampshire,” said UNH associate professor of political science Dante Scala. “The heart of the New Hampshire Republican party is inland and up Route 93, not so much on the seacoast.”
Whether Brown can overcome the perception among some that he is an outsider “depends on how much he gets around and talks to activists and the party faithful day after day,” Scala said.
Some independents who spoke with the Globe on Saturday said they were unhappy with Shaheen and the gridlock in Congress. They like Brown and expect to vote for him, but unlike Peck and Republicans who worry Brown is not conservative enough, independents are hoping he is an as-advertised centrist.
“The fact that he’s from Massachusetts doesn’t really spook me,” said 63-year-old Dennis Thrush of Salem, whose political views straddle the Democratic and Republican platforms. “I’m more interested in his independence. If all of a sudden, he goes extreme right because he thinks he needs to to win, he’ll lose my vote. If he stays midstream, I can live with a couple of things I disagree with. At least he’d come up with a legitimate middle ground.”
Scala said Brown should resist any attempts by his primary rivals to drag him toward the far right.
“Scott Brown’s got a record, so it’s tough to run away from that,” he said. “If you’re a Brown strategist, I think you’re hoping that he can ignore his rivals for the nomination, go out every day and put his best foot forward, and pretend that he and Shaheen are only the only two people in the race.”
For other New Hampshirites, it is simply too early to pay much attention to the Senate race.
“I’m more interested in what’s going on with Ayla Brown than her dad,” laughed Elaine Boule, a staff member at the Red Arrow, referring to Brown’s daughter who became a star on “American Idol.”
While the spotlight remains trained on Brown in the wake of his announcement, Scala said the election may ultimately be a referendum on Shaheen.
“For all the hoopla about Scott Brown, it really depends first and foremost whether voters want to fire Jean Shaheen,” Scala said. “She’s better-known than Scott Brown in the state, and better-liked.”
On Saturday, as Brown traveled the state to meet with residents, Shaheen called on Brown to reject spending by outside groups in the race.
In a statement, Brown did not respond directly on whether he would agree to do so, saying he was focused on meeting with New Hampshire families. But Brown and New Hampshire Republicans denounced Shaheen’s request as hypocritical because it came as she was fund-raising in California.
Whether what appears to be a steep climb for Brown becomes an insurmountable cliff depends on many factors, Scala said. Questions include whether a Republican rival is able to siphon off a significant number of more conservative donors and voters, whether a spirited primary energizes or divides Republican voters, and whether super PACs pour money into the race.
And, of course, on whether he can answer one key question: “Who is Scott Brown?”