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Concord, N.H. • Just a few years ago, Mitt Romney was crisscrossing this state introducing himself to voters he hoped would help him win the White House. Against a deep field of contenders, the former Massachusetts governor faced a daunting challenge, especially given that Sen. John McCain was already the odds-on favorite in the Granite State.
This time around, with McCain's loss and a Democrat running the Oval Office, Romney finds himself in that leading spot heading into a potential 2012 presidential bid. His job now: keeping it.
"Back then, everyone was looking at McCain and what he was going to do," said Tom Rath, a top adviser on Romney's 2008 bid who remains in his inner circle. "Now, they're all looking at Romney wondering what he's going to do."
Romney hasn't made any decision on whether he'll mount another bid for the White House, Rath stressed, and for now Romney is jetting around the country handing out donations from his political action committee, endorsing candidates and hosting fundraisers.
New Hampshire, though, like its early-state sisters, remains a focus, as Romney demonstrated Saturday in giving the keynote address at the state GOP convention.
"I brought my sweetheart here from Wolfboro," Romney said, referring to his wife, Ann, and their vacation home in the state's lakes region.
Ahead of the November elections, Romney steered clear of mentioning any presidential hopes during his speech, but he previewed his attack lines should he run against President Barack Obama in two years.
"We are all unhappy with what has happened under this president," Romney said, noting Obama's first two years in office were an "abject failure."
Rath says Romney has worked to build a strong brand in the state and adds that's an asset in whatever he decides to do.
"Republicans know Mitt Romney now," Rath said.
And they like him.
A poll earlier this month of New Hampshire Republicans showed Romney trouncing other potential 2012 candidates, with the former head of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City nabbing 41 percent to Newt Gingrich's 12 percent, Sarah Palin's 10 percent and Mike Huckabee's 8 percent.
Romney wins every faction of the GOP in the state, according to the survey by Public Policy Polling, even taking the lead among tea party activists 36 percent to 18 percent over Palin, a darling of that grass-roots movement.
In many ways, Romney has paid his dues in New Hampshire, something voters here highly respect, according to Fergus Cullen, who was the state Republican chairman during the 2008 cycle.
"He's run through the snowbanks; he's spoken to all the Rotary clubs," Cullen said. "He gets points for doing that. But he has to do it again."
Sixteen months ahead of the state's first-in-the-nation primary, Romney doesn't have to introduce himself anymore.
"I think he's great," says Susan Emerson, a state representative from Ringe, N.H., who backed McCain in 2008 but wishes she hadn't. "I like what [Romney] did in Massachusetts. He's fair. He's a good, wholesome man."
State Rep. Jim Danforth of Andover says he has talked with Romney no less than 20 times – and he's a fan.
"He practices what he preaches," says Danforth, who received a $1,000 donation from Romney's political action committee. "This last time out, he didn't pander. The first I met him [more than a decade ago], he was saying the exact same thing."
While Romney's Mormon faith – regarded by some evangelical Protestants as non-Christian – may raise concerns with some voters during another presidential run, in this state most people remain private about their own religious beliefs, and it hasn't surfaced as much of an issue. In fact, Romney won four delegates to McCain's seven in the 2008 primary race. (Romney bowed out later after losing several more state contests.)
Of course, Romney's not the only potential 2012 candidate dropping by New Hampshire these days: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty are headed here this week, and some Republicans are keeping an open mind. Republican Karen McRae, of Goffstown, says Romney is "interesting," but she isn't set on him or any other candidate. For her, the 2008 race is over and it's all new this time.
"It all starts fresh," she says. "It's a new year."
Rep. Stephen Palmer, of Milford, dropped a couple of names he's looking at, including Pawlenty, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, the House Republicans' No. 3 leader, and, of course, Romney.
"I like the man," says Palmer. "He's got some good ideas. [But] I'm not sure I'll vote for him."