PETERBOROUGH, New Hampshire—Mitt Romney reeled into New Hampshire to tough questions and a surging rival Wednesday morning, but by the end of the day the order of things in the Republican Primary seemed to be reasserting itself.
Romney launched a final push here to put those charges to rest by scoring an overwhelming victory in New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary next week, and to begin locking up the nomination.
To that end, he secured the endorsement of Sen. John McCain, who won the state primary in 2000 and 2008 — and the crowds here responded to it.
Before a friendly audience of about 300 voters, Romney and McCain held forth on softball topics for the two experienced politicians like Pakistan and job creation. One boy even asked Romney why he wanted to go through the trouble of running for president.
“Well that, my boy, is a really good question,” Romney replied.
“I hope at the end of this appearance, that you’ve watched this Romney campaign throughout this state, that we will get an overwhelming vote that will catapult this candidate to the White House,” McCain said, and the crowd responded with loud applause.
It was a dramatically different scene than a town hall earlier in the day in the city of Manchester, when an exhausted Romney was sidetracked by a question from a supporter of Occupy Wall Street and never quite found his way back to his message.
The two Wednesday events highlight Romney’s strength in the working class and rural portions of the state, much like McCain four and 12 years ago — but also the enthusiasm gap that he is still struggling to bridge. He drew far smaller crowds — neither room was filled to anywhere near capacity — than McCain last time around.
The scene also contrasted with four years ago, when Romney and McCain were locked in a bitter battle for the GOP nomination and McCain made a major issue of Romney’s flip-flops.
On Wednesday it was all smiles, and McCain vouched for Romney’s conservative record, referencing his motto from both earlier New Hampshire victories, calling him "an honest, straight-talking person of experience,” as well as a “true conservative.”
Romney also flexed his muscle on foreign policy issues, nodding as McCain declared that President Barack Obama had “destroyed our national security.” He pledged to maintain defense spending — and even increase the size of the military — an issue he didn’t emphasize much in Iowa, but one that is a key component of Santorum’s platform.
Santorum is largely considered the staunchest social conservative in the race, and McCain’s endorsement on Romney’s ideological purity doesn’t do much outside New Hampshire, given conservative questions about his own record.
Today Romney and McCain will be campaigning in South Carolina along with Gov. Nikki Haley to a damper on any potential Santorum surge in the conservative Palmetto State.
Romney released a new add attacking the National Labor Relations Board for its role in a lawsuit to block the opening of a Boeing Assembly plant in the state, and accusing President Barack Obama of staking the board with “union stooges.”
It’s a hot-button issue in the right to work state, and the expected strong push from Romney on the issue, combined with ample resources to spread it on television.
Romney is setting expectations high in New Hampshire from the start, and he’s gunning to take as much as 50-percent of the Granite State Republican vote. By South Carolina, all he’ll need is a win to put an end to functionally put an end to the race for the GOP nomination.