Union-Leader anti-endorsement: Mitt's a phony; Update: Romney camp responds

That’s twice in a week that a major New Hampshire paper has torpedoed him on the op-ed page. Does he come off this badly in person or, as a sort of flip side to David Shuster’s puffing for Huckabee, is the media trying to sink him because they think he’d be tough to beat in the general? If the latter then the U-L’s logic is nuanced indeed: Their preferred candidate is Maverick, who does better than Mitt against the Democrats across the board.

Romney has all the advantages: money, organization, geographic proximity, statesman-like hair, etc.

But he lacks something John McCain has in spades: conviction.

Granite Staters want a candidate who will look them in the eye and tell them the truth. John McCain has done that day in and day out, never wavering, never faltering, never pandering.

Mitt Romney has not. He has spoken his lines well, but the people can sense that the words are memorized, not heartfelt…

In this primary, the more Mitt Romney speaks, the less believable he becomes. That is why Granite Staters who have listened attentively are now returning to John McCain. They might not agree with McCain on everything, as we don’t, but like us, they judge him to be a man of integrity and conviction, a man who won’t sell them out, who won’t break his promises, and who won’t lie to get elected.

You could say the same of Fred, who has the advantage of not including amnesty among his core convictions, and he’s polling somewhere slightly north of zero in NH. In any case, I’ve soured on Mitt a bit lately too, not because he sounds less believable the more I hear him speak (the MLK-march fiasco notwithstanding) but because I suddenly find myself obliged to root for him as the white knight who can slay the Huckadragon even though I’m not particularly enthused about him otherwise. It reminds me of Kerry and Dean in 2004 — a mainstream pol with a history of squishiness whom no one’s excited about but who stands a chance of winning derails the exciting upstart who’d be eaten alive in the general, and then spends the rest of the campaign underwhelming both sides on his way to a narrow defeat by the hated figurehead from the other party. I’m not looking forward to nine months of “well, he beats the alternative” posts next year, but then we’re pretty much guaranteed that no matter who wins the nomination.

Exit question for the U-L: Well, he beats the alternative, doesn’t he?

Update: Barnett makes a similar point using Buchanan and Dole instead of Dean and Kerry and ventures a fearless prediction about Huckabee in Iowa.

Update: Team Mitt answers the Union-Leader:

“Governor Romney is running for President as the ‘full-spectrum conservative’ in this race, as described by the editors of National Review, a widely respected conservative publication, in their published endorsement of him.

“Governor Romney has built a coalition of grassroots conservative support in. New Hampshire and across the country as a result of his advocacy for economic, social and national security policies that champion conservative Republican ideals.

“We, of course, respect the Union-Leader’s right to voice their opinion, but the differences between Governor Romney and Senator McCain are clear. We disagree with Senator McCain’s joining Democrats to vote against Republican plans for tax relief, his pro-amnesty immigration proposal with Senator Kennedy and his McCain-Feingold legislation which hurt conservative advocacy efforts.”

-Kevin Madden, Romney for President campaign spokesman