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N.H. primary poll puts non-candidate Romney first

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney spoke at a presidential campaign rally in Las Vegas in 2012.Stephen Crowley/New York Times

For Republicans fearful of Donald Trump becoming their party's presidential nominee, a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters offers a three-word solution: Willard Mitt Romney.

If the former Massachusetts governor were added to the mix of the 14 other Republican candidates running in the Feb. 9 first-in-the-nation presidential primary, New Hampshire voters would, if the election were held now, give him a 2-to-1 win over Trump, the leader of the field.

Romney, who said as recently as last week that he is not interested in running, did not file for the New Hampshire primary ballot by the deadline last Friday. He would have the support of 31 percent of Granite State Republicans compared with 15 percent backing Trump, the poll indicates.


With Romney, the party's 2012 presidential nominee, out of the picture, Trump continues to dominate. Trump has 22 percent support, double that of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who ran second in the poll, with 11 percent.

"Donald Trump's loyal 22 percent goes a long way in New Hampshire," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. "As long as the remaining 78 percent is split relatively evenly among the six or seven major contenders, we're getting close to 'Trump-mate' in the Granite State."

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has been in second place in New Hampshire in most polls for much of the past month, ran third in the new poll, with 10 percent — a showing that comes amid new scrutiny of Carson's statements about his own past and about foreign policy.

Ohio Governor John Kasich and Texas Senator Ted Cruz were tied for fourth, with 9 percent, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush had 8 percent. All others had either 4 percent support or less.


The poll of 500 New Hampshire Republicans and independent voters who said they intend to vote in the Republican primary was taken last Tuesday through Thursday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

These poll numbers do more than simply provide a snapshot of where the race stands with 10 weeks to go before the New Hampshire primary. For the first time, polls in Iowa and New Hampshire will help determine who can make the cut at the next Republican debate in December.

On Friday, CNN released criteria stipulating that a candidate must have a polling average of at least 3.5 percent nationally or 4 percent in Iowa or New Hampshire. In this New Hampshire poll, eight candidates would quality for the main stage, but Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who registered at 3 percent, would be dropped for the first time. Paul also is below the necessary level in Iowa and nationally.

Still, the New Hampshire primary remains in flux, with 18 percent undecided on whom they would vote for. If Romney were in the field — having missed the filing deadline he could now participate only as a write-in candidate — roughly one in three voters would abandon their current choice to follow him.

Sean McDonough of Windham, N.H., a 49-year-old mortgage originator and father of three, is one of them. McDonough, who was among those polled, said in an interview that he wants a businessman to run the country.

Today he prefers Trump, but he would back Romney instead, given the opportunity, "because when it comes to talking with leaders in other countries, Romney is probably a better person to do that."


The poll also found that New Hampshire GOP voters' priorities have changed in the aftermath of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. All year, jobs and the economy had been the top issue among these voters, but now 42 percent said terrorism and national security are the most important issues facing the country.

This does not appear likely to have much effect on preferences in the race for the GOP nomination, however, with one in four saying that Trump was the "best equipped" to handle the American response to the Islamic State. Another 13 percent believed that Rubio could lead the response better than others.

Rubio, in fact, is emerging to be a consensus pick among mainstream Republicans. He had the highest personal favorability rating among those polled and he led others as the second-choice candidate of those polled. Further, Rubio was viewed as the second most likely to win in the general election, behind Trump.

Angie Murphy, an 87-year-old from Bedford, N.H., has become more interested in Rubio in recent weeks, drawn to his youth and his presentation.

"I think he is a young, intelligent man who has the perfect background of his Cuban parents that will be perfect for today," Murphy said.

Meanwhile Carson, who officially filed to put his name on the New Hampshire ballot on Friday, still has a good deal of support in the state.


Sarah Hilman, a 68-year-old retired day care worker in Wakefield, N.H., said she liked that Carson "doesn't panic" under the intense media scrutiny.

"He seems like he is very cool-headed, and he has been on the hot seat lately," Hilman said. But Hilman said that if Romney suddenly got into the race, she would have to give him another look.

"I am on the fence on that one," Hilman said. "He was a very successful businessman. The fact that he does have a little bit of political experience would probably not be a bad thing."

Cruz is also becoming the choice of many conservatives in the state and has nearly doubled his support in the last month, compared with other polls of New Hampshire Republicans.

That Cruz "stands up for the Constitution" is the reason that Chuck Martin, a 44-year-old engineer from Merrimack, N.H., is supporting him. "The country is in crisis," Martin said. He believes Cruz is the most likely to follow the Constitution because he has proven he will "not compromise on principles" and has argued in front of the US Supreme Court.

The poll put Bush at sixth place, but the difference between Rubio's second place and Bush's sixth was within the poll's margin of error.

The person who fared worst in the poll was Romney's 2012 primary rival, Rick Santorum.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign.