MANCHESTER, N.H. — As presidential candidates jockey for position ahead of next year’s nominating contests, Republicans in New Hampshire believe that the race will come down to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—and the rest. If Romney is to be defeated, both friends and foes say, someone will have to emerge as the anti-Romney consensus.
At least, that’s the conventional wisdom among the Granite State’s political class. But what has them scratching their heads is a more fundamental question: Where, exactly, has Romney gone?
He has not held a public event in New Hampshire since late October. His next scheduled stop is an address to the Carroll County Republican Committee’s annual Lincoln-Reagan dinner, on March 5. As other contenders hit the trail, Romney has left his best battleground undefended for four months.
Romney’s team has also declined to participate in interviews with Fox News and other local outlets putting together packages on possible 2012 candidates. His only two public maneuvers in recent weeks were a trip to Afghanistan and the Middle East, drowned out as it was by the tragedy in Tucson, and attending a dinner hosted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
His absence, especially from the first-in-the-nation primary state, is earning attention. In that sense, Romney is a victim of high expectations. Activists and journalists eager to see the 2012 campaign kick off remember his early announcement in 2007, when he filed papers with the Federal Election Commission on January 3. Many expected a robust effort to launch right after the New Year—expectations that haven’t been met.
That should be no surprise, Romney’s advisers say. After all, he is not a candidate for president yet, legally speaking.
“Mitt’s not a candidate, and he’s not keeping a candidate’s schedule. When and if he becomes a candidate, you will see him more frequently,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for Romney’s Free and Strong America PAC.
But behind the scenes, Romney is taking a series of quiet steps aimed at positioning himself for a second try at the nation’s highest office. His campaign has signed up several strategists who will assume top roles, including Rich Beeson, who will serve as political director, and Neil Newhouse, the highly regarded pollster from Public Opinion Strategies. Romney’s team is talking with former allies in New Hampshire; many believe about three-quarters of the members of his 2008 operation are likely to return.
Though there is no official campaign, and no strategy decisions have been finalized, Romney’s team has considered running a very different race from the last one. After Romney spent millions of dollars and a huge chunk of time in Iowa, only to finish behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, his strategists have spoken with potential consultants about the prospect of skipping Iowa altogether this time and launching a campaign from New Hampshire.
That strategy first came up last summer in conversations with several possible advisers. But it’s not clear how far along the planning has gotten, and sources emphasize that no final decisions have been made.
There is no question, however, that Romney is signaling he will make New Hampshire his top priority in 2012. He held several private meetings at his home on Lake Winnipesaukee, just north of Manchester and Concord, according to people who have attended the events, to garner support. The events are secretive; attendees are invited just a few days before and are asked not to share the information. Romney’s top advisers, including Fehrnstrom, former campaign manager Beth Myers, lobbyist Ron Kaufman, and others held a Christmas party in Manchester with supporters.
And there is no need for Romney to jump in right away to raise money or build name recognition. He is the best-known possible candidate among the party’s electorate, save former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and Romney has the financial connections to quickly fund a bid. Both of those factors stand in contrast to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the two contenders most visible on the trail.
“Nobody knows who Rick is, or who Pawlenty is,” said one Romney adviser, who asked to remain anonymous, explaining the thinking behind keeping Romney out of the limelight. “There’s not a great need [to win publicity] right now.”
Romney benefits, perhaps more so than his rivals, from the détente that’s preventing the 2012 campaign from kicking off in earnest. Until the campaign gets under way, he will not suffer the slings and arrows sure to head his way once it starts. As the perceived front-runner, Romney will become an easy foil for long shots, and for anyone determined to be the anti-Romney.
The seeming lack of urgency extends beyond Romney to the rest of the field. After the grueling pace that political professionals kept over the last three cycles, all of which produced tumultuous political climates, starting the next cycle so early holds little appeal. Jumping into a presidential race early, strategists for many contenders point out, means that a candidate has to start spending resources earlier.
“One of the lessons we learned from the last campaign is that things got started way too soon. Mitt is in no hurry to make an announcement,” Fehrnstrom said. Added the adviser who asked to remain anonymous: “There was a real fatigue in the campaign four years ago. It was a long slog.”
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels have said they will not declare a bid until their legislative sessions are finished this spring. Aides to Pawlenty expect a formal announcement in March. Even Santorum has put off jumping into the race.
And all of those decisions are just fine with Romney.
This article appears in the Jan. 27, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.