February 26, 2006

With eye on W.House, Romney shines in New Hampshire

By Jason Szep

WEST OSSIPEE, New Hampshire (Reuters) - With an eye on a
possible White House bid, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is
aggressively courting New Hampshire's Republicans, expanding
his power base in the state with the first presidential

Although caucuses to open the 2008 campaign season are two
years away, the race always begins early in New Hampshire, and
the next election cycle is beginning even earlier than usual,
state Republican party activists say.

Romney, the 58-year-old millionaire who first gained
national attention for turning around the scandal-plagued 2002
Salt Lake City Olympics, has already made five official visits
to New Hampshire in little over a year.

Among other possible 2008 Republican contenders, New York
Governor George Pataki has visited New Hampshire three times.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has made three appearance,
while Arizona Senator John McCain is an early favorite with
just one visit.

As Republican governor of a neighboring state, Romney knows
the welcome mat is always out for him, and he's taking
advantage of it. Many Republican faithful say they like what
they've seen.

"I'm sure the party will have a lot of good candidates, but
he's certainly going to be right at the top," said Republican
activist Gene Chandler, the state's public works chairman and a
former speaker of the House in the state legislature.

"His reputation and credentials are so impeccable. It's
what the country needs," he told Reuters late on Friday, after
the annual dinner of the Republican Committee of Carroll
county, which voted for President George W. Bush in the past
two elections.

Minutes earlier at the dinner of about 230 party activists,
Romney drew a standing ovation after a stump speech in which he
praised Bush for "standing up to jihadists" but chided his
White House for profligate spending and its education policies.

"We've got to raise our game here if we're going to compete
with Asia," he told the gathering in West Ossipee, a rural
community about 45 miles north of Concord, the state capital.


Tom Dewhurst, a 45-year-old lawyer from Conway, New
Hampshire, said Romney appeared impressive and personable.

Like many of the state's Republicans, Dewhurst also likes
the fact that Michigan-born Romney owns a summer home in the
state where he often holds barbecues for Republican loyalists.

"He's a bit like a native son here," said Dewhurst, a
Republican for about 20 years.

Romney's aides say he is "keeping all options open" and
will announce whether he will seek his party's nomination after
November's mid-term elections.

But he already appears primed for the run, this month
hiring the domestic policy advisor of Bush's 2000 presidential
campaign, declaring in December he would not seek re-election
as governor and frequently dropping into battleground states.

If he runs, he'll face a large field of better-known
Republicans. McCain and former New York City mayor Rudolph
Giuliani are far ahead in early polling; Frist, Pataki and
Virginia senator George Allen are about even with Romney.

McCain has the support of 41 percent of 600 likely New
Hampshire Republican voters, with Romney ranked a distant
second at 9 percent, a poll this month by American Research
Group shows.

The son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney has several
advantages, political analysts say. He is a charismatic
communicator with an actor's good looks, a successful
businessman and the Republican Governors' Association chairman,
a role that could lift his national profile.

But he lacks foreign policy experience and has an
inconsistent record on some hot-button social issues such as
abortion, which he said in a failed 1994 campaign to unseat
Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy should stay "safe and legal"
before more recently declaring himself "firmly pro-life."