BEDFORD, N.H.—The steaks were thick and bloody. Mounds of potatoes were mashed with garlic and butter. The crab cakes—to die for: “Sweet Jesus,” a white-haired woman whispered to Mitt Romney, “they melt in my mouth like cotton candy.” Twenty-one plates, 21 artery-clotting meals, and 20 of New Hampshire’s most important Republicans were gathered around a table at the invitation of Jim Merrill, Romney’s political fixer in the state. Each guest had worked against Romney in the 2008 presidential campaign or had sat out the race.
Which is exactly why Romney came to see them at a steakhouse here early in the summer of 2010. He wanted their help in 2012. “I’m looking at this again,” Romney told them. “What would you say I did right? What would you say I did wrong?”
“Let me start with your tie,” responded Steve Duprey, the irreverent former state GOP chairman who backed Sen. John McCain over Romney four years ago. “Lose it.”
Laughter filled the room. The ice was broken. The advice flowed. Duprey said, “And another thing …”
From that gathering in 2010 and a more exclusive session six months later in La Jolla, Calif., emerged the outlines of the cautious, disciplined strategy that has put Romney on the verge of accomplishing a historic sweep: Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primary.
No other nonincumbent candidate has accomplished that feat since the Iowa caucuses took their current form in 1980. The winner in Iowa traditionally gets a cool reception in New Hampshire, where independent-minded voters hate to rubber-stamp anything.
Another obstacle to the sweep is the huge differences in the two states’ electorates: GOP voters in Iowa tend to be older (73 percent are over age 45, compared with just under half in New Hampshire); three times more evangelical (60 percent to 23 percent); less wealthy (half as many caucus-goers as New Hampshire voters earn $100,000 or more annually); and more rural (69 percent of voters in Iowa compared with 36 percent in New Hampshire).
Taken together, Iowa and New Hampshire reflect the national GOP electorate. “If you can win Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Wayne MacDonald, chairman of the Granite State’s Republican Party, “you’ve essentially got your nominating coalition.”
After a narrow victory in Iowa, Romney is poised for that sweep. The only question is whether his margin of victory on Tuesday night will meet the high expectations. Put another way: Can Rick Santorum bounce out of Iowa to shave Romney’s lead in New Hampshire and establish himself as a sustainable and viable conservative alternative?
The die was cast months ago, when former New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen cleared his throat at the Bedford steakhouse and told Romney to think twice about courting Iowa evangelicals again. “I wouldn’t focus on Iowa next time,” he said, according to three of the dinner guests. “Let it go.”
Duprey added, “If you go to Iowa, do it like McCain did. Blow off the straw poll. Play enough to be viable, and make a late call on whether to spend a ton.”
Six months later, Romney summoned Duprey and three other McCain advisers from 2008 to his home in La Jolla. “What can I learn from what John did?” Duprey was blunt: “Lose the cluster of consultants. Get rid of the tie. Don’t just take scripted questions from friendly people at town halls. Take hostile questions. Loosen up.”
Out of these sessions came three Romney decisions. First, spend less time and money in Iowa than in 2008. Second, spend less time and money in New Hampshire, a state where Romney is well known as the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. Pay more attention to gathering political IOUs. And third, hire fewer consultants. In 2008, Romney recruited a cadre of operatives who fought each other and muddled his message. This time, he has cast his lot with Stuart Stevens.
Romney has by far the best organization in New Hampshire. Starting early, he showered state leaders with campaign donations, handwritten notes, and telephone calls. The results: 11 of 19 state GOP senators, 72 state House members, and eight of the state’s 10 sheriffs endorsed Romney. Still, his ground game is smaller than in 2008. His rivals followed suit.
Mike Dennehy, a former McCain adviser and one of the state’s best on-the-ground strategists, counted on his fingers the ways in which this year’s primary is a vagary. “No. 1, no campaign has announced county-by-county organizations, not even Romney’s,” he said. “Fewer town halls. Fewer yard signs. Fewer trips to the state.”
If Romney underperforms here, he may regret curbing his ground game.
Santorum is poised to do better than expected. He spent nearly as many days in the state (41) as Romney (47), and his national campaign manager, Mike Biundo, is a New Hampshire operative. But social conservatives like Santorum traditionally don’t fare well in New Hampshire. And Santorum could be just another flavor of the moment: In the last 11 WMUR-TV polls, dating to February 2010, eight different contenders have taken second place to Romney.
Jon Huntsman has spent 70 days in New Hampshire with little to show for it, the victim of inconsistent messaging. As for Newt Gingrich, he is just trying to hang on—and he will bloody Romney. It would take a major stumble to turn this state against Romney, and it would be a severe blow to his candidacy. Two debates this weekend will give his rivals a shot.
He may lose the tie, state GOP insiders say, but Romney is unlikely to lose New Hampshire.
Scott Bland contributed
This article appears in the Jan. 7, 2012, edition of National Journal.