BERLIN, N.H. — Mitt Romney is a part-time resident of this tiny state, and his fiscally conservative, socially moderate tenure as governor of neighboring Massachusetts once seemed a good match for New Hampshire’s independent and libertarian-leaning electorate.
Yet, Romney trails President Barack Obama in polls here, as he does in most other presidential battlegrounds, despite spending considerable time and money to lock up the state’s four Electoral College votes. Some New Hampshire voters say they are turned off by his shift to the right on issues like abortion, while others have absorbed the message from Obama campaign ads depicting Romney as a wealthy corporate titan who doesn’t understand the concerns of ordinary Americans.
“He’s just another rich, arrogant son of a gun,” said Norm Small, 61, a registered independent who runs a bowling alley in Berlin in northern New Hampshire. The town is home to many of the working-class white voters who have never embraced Obama, but interviews found many residents deeply skeptical of Romney’s fiscal policies and aura of privilege.
Small said he was offended by comments Romney made at a secretly videotaped Florida fundraiser suggesting that 47 percent of people see themselves as “victims” entitled to public assistance and unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. The Obama campaign is running a tough new ad in New Hampshire drawing attention to those remarks.
“The people who are getting help probably really need it,” Small said. “Romney says 47 percent of people are living off the dole? He should realize that lot of them are struggling.”
Polls until recently had shown Romney giving strong chase to Obama in a state Obama carried by nearly 10 percentage points over Republican John McCain four years ago. But an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll released last week showed Obama leading Romney by 7 percentage points — 51 to 44 percent — among likely voters.
The Romney campaign’s TV advertising has dipped somewhat in the state in recent weeks but has been buoyed by ads from the super PAC American Crossroads. Aides downplayed the advertising drop, noting the state does not have an early voting program, meaning voters can be wooed through Election Day, Nov. 6.
“We are committed, we are focused, and we have a ground game that is extraordinarily strong,” Romney senior New Hampshire adviser Jim Merrill said. “This state is absolutely in play.”
Romney has made the state part of his identity; he formally announced his 2012 presidential candidacy at a New Hampshire farm and has spent many weekends at his vacation compound on Lake Winnipesaukee.
New Hampshire has not always been the most hospitable place for Obama. In the 2008 Democratic primary, voters snubbed him for rival Hillary Rodman Clinton just days after Obama routed the former first lady in Iowa’s kickoff caucuses.
Berlin resident David Viger says Obama’s tax and regulatory policies have hurt and in some cases shut down local businesses. The 61-year-old auto repair shop owner says he is eager to vote for Romney.
“Romney is a successful businessman. Obama is not,” Viger said. “Obama has no clue on how to run a business. Obama couldn’t run a lemonade stand.”
New Hampshire is the smallest of the major battleground states. But both sides are acutely aware of its potential to alter the outcome if the national contest is tight.
They point to 2000, when Democrat Al Gore lost New Hampshire by just 7,000 votes to Republican George W. Bush. Had Gore prevailed in New Hampshire, he would have had the 270 votes needed to win the election and the famously disputed Florida vote would not have determined the race.
Romney still must convince voters here he’s still the pragmatic problem-solver they observed in Massachusetts.
“A fiscally conservative, socially libertarian message wins here,” New Hampshire Institute of Politics director Neil Levesque said. “The message is: ‘Stay away from me, stay away from my life, and, by the way, what’s going on with all the spending? … Washington is out of control.'”
Romney’s focus on jobs may not fully resonate in New Hampshire. The state’s unemployment rate of 5.7 percent in August is far lower than the 8.1 percent national average, blunting his effort to cast Obama as a poor steward of the economy.
Romney also faces a considerable gender gap — the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll found Obama leading Romney among women by 20 percentage points, 57-37 percent.
Manice Moser, 33, said she would vote for Obama chiefly based on his record on women’s issues. The stay-at-home mother of three said her vote was driven more by antipathy to Romney than excitement about the president.
“The most important thing is women’s rights. I have two daughters and they should be able to control their choices,” Moser said.
Romney was pro-abortion rights as Massachusetts governor but since has shifted his position to opposing abortion in most cases, a position more in line with the social conservatives who make up a large portion of the national Republican Party base. He has vowed to end federal aid to Planned Parenthood, a leading provider of abortion and contraception services.