Despite his advantages, Romney is drawing roughly one-third of the vote here–or just about the 31.6 percent he finished with in 2008. Romney’s rivals like to describe him as an “incumbent” for the purposes of the New Hampshire contest, and that seems fair. Last time around Mitt was still introducing himself to voters; now his name recognition is about 100 percent. But any incumbent running just over 30 percent and not increasing his numbers is hardly in a commanding position. It is true that Romney has become a sharper, stronger candidate since ’08. But it’s also true that he hasn’t yet taken many hard punches this cycle. And now he doesn’t just have the problems that hounded him four years ago–his varied flip-flops and his clunky personal touch–to contend with, but also the conservative outrage over “ObamneyCare.” It’s not clear that the state’s newspaper editorial boards, which savaged him en masse in 2008 (“a phony” who “surely must be stopped”), will be any kinder this time around.
One big question mark is whether Perry will decide to exploit that softness. The Granite State, where John McCain surged against then Texas Governor George W. Bush in 2000, might prove difficult territory for the tough-talking southerner. But the political media has declared New Hampshire a must-win state, and reasonably so. Focusing resources here that Perry could deploy in other states, like South Carolina and Nevada, is a high-risk strategy but also offers high rewards. It remains to be seen whether he’ll go for it. (Perry got off to a slow start here with an appearance before a group of local GOP elites that one attendee described to me as startlingly bad.)