MANCHESTER, N.H. - Mitt Romney, bleary-eyed after his early morning eight-vote victory in Iowa, dubbed his campaign bus “Landslide Lounge’’ yesterday and vowed to turn that nickname from one of irony into one of reality in the Granite State.
“My goodness, what a squeaker,’’ Romney told a subdued crowd at Manchester Central High School yesterday afternoon.
“The question I have for you is, can we do better here in New Hampshire?’’
The former Massachusetts governor was joined by Senator John McCain, who bitterly competed with Romney in New Hampshire before beating him here and for the 2008 GOP nomination. The senator from Arizona, who also won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, entered with Romney as “Top Gun’’ theme music blared over the speakers.
McCain was a naval pilot in the Vietnam War before he was captured and imprisoned in North Vietnam. “My friends, we are believed around the world to be weak. We are believed to be in decline. And that is not the case,’’ he said. “Mitt Romney and I and you believe that America’s greatest days are still ahead of us.’’
The endorsement was important for Romney’s campaign and was clearly timed to be revealed in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire. McCain, who remains popular with independents here, became known as a master of the retail politicking in the Granite State during his presidential campaigns, attending hundreds of events at VFW halls, cafes, and voters’ living rooms. His win in the 2008 primary here resurrected his candidacy and staggered Romney’s.
New Hampshire has been Romney’s firewall this time, and his campaign is eager for a strong victory that will demonstrate his organizational strength and his appeal among voters in diverse places. Romney has a vacation home in the state, and voters generally share his brand of Republicanism, which emphasizes fiscal conservatism and downplays social conservatism.
He enters as a heavy favorite, but that position can become perilous in a state that likes to surprise on election night.
After months of focusing almost exclusively on President Obama, Romney’s campaign now must determine how and whether to respond to rivals.
Former senator Rick Santorum, who has also campaigned frequently in the Granite State, arrived last night after nearly beating Romney in Iowa. Santorum’s active social conservatism might not play well with broad swaths of the state, but with Michele Bachmann dropping out of the race and Governor Rick Perry of Texas largely skipping New Hampshire, there is little competition for that vote.
Santorum has questioned Romney’s conservative credentials. Joining him in that criticism has been Newt Gingrich, who has hinted he will go on the attack against Romney in New Hampshire after the former House speaker faced a barrage of attack ads in Iowa.
Romney’s top supporters sought to preempt such attacks. In introducing Romney yesterday, for example, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu highlighted several aspects of Romney’s record, including support for “right to life’’ legislation and opposition to gay marriage.
“That’s a true conservative,’’ Sununu said several times of Romney. “That’s a real leader.’’
Coming to the gymnasium at Manchester Central High School - the same place where Obama spoke in November - Romney was peppered with questions that were more hostile than he faced in Iowa.
The first was from a man - who identified himself as Mark from Occupy Boston - who criticized Romney for his comment last year that “corporations are people, too.’’
“It seems that the US is a great place to be a corporation,’’ the man said, “but increasingly a desperate place to live and work.’’
“Where do you think corporations’ profits go?’’ Romney asked.
“It goes to the 1 percent of Americans who own the 90 percent of stocks,’’ the man responded and continued to press him.
“You’ve had your turn,’’ Romney said. “Now it’s my turn. . . . Corporations are made up of people and the money goes to people either to hire people or to pay shareholders. They’re made up of people. So somehow thinking that there’s something else out there that we could grab money from and get taxes from and everything would be better . . . why, they’re still people.’’
Several minutes later, a woman criticized Romney for his economic and foreign policies.
“I’m Chinese, and I’m American, and I love this country,’’ the woman said. “I heard all this degrading thing about China this and China that. It just doesn’t make me feel good.’’ Then, she pressed Romney on the economy.
“After 20 years of Reagan economics, trickle down theory, it didn’t help me,’’ she said. “My tin can is still empty.’’
“Let me ask you a question: Can you tell me where it’s better to live, where the income per person is better than in America?’’ Romney responded. “You love this country? So do I.’’
Romney began his day early yesterday in Des Moines. Several hours after receiving an early-morning phone call from a top adviser telling him he won the Iowa caucus by eight votes, Romney boarded the plane that his campaign chartered to New Hampshire. “I can’t believe it,’’ he said, after his family and advisers burst into applause. “The team that made it happen!’’
“We only fly winners,’’ the captain said over the intercom on the plane, a 737 charter that included several dozen reporters. “We’ve flown Bush, Clinton. And now, Governor Romney.’’