HAMPTON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - It was standing room only as Mitt Romney briefly took time out from Iowa to campaign in Republican strongholds in New Hampshire, where he holds a wide lead approaching the state’s first-in-the-nation primary.
Romney spent almost as much time posing for photographs and signing autographs for energized fans as he did making his pitch to become the Republican presidential nominee.
With Kid Rock’s “Born Free” as his theme song, Romney appeared at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Merrimack on Friday and in the seaside town of Hampton on Saturday to protect his double digit lead ahead of the state’s January 10 vote.
“I need you to go out and vote. In some states they ask you to vote early and often; I won’t do that,” he quipped.
Instead, Romney urged supporters to canvass friends and neighbors for him. Romney campaign officials estimate almost 300,000 telephone calls have been made on his behalf so far.
At both events Romney, who was flying back to Iowa on Saturday for the final push ahead of that state’s caucuses on Tuesday, stuck to his mantra of targeting Democratic President Barack Obama rather than his Republican rivals.
“This president is not a success, this president has been a failure. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, I just think he’s overwhelmed and is over his head,” said Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts who has a holiday home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
Iowa’s caucuses are gatherings of voters who cast ballots after listening to final pitches on behalf of the candidates, while voters directly cast ballots in New Hampshire’s primary.
After hearing Romney speak on Saturday, Mark Babcock, 44, a business consultant from Hampton Falls, said he believed New Hampshire would vote in favor of Romney.
“Ethically, morally, spiritually, I am a fan of Mitt Romney,” he said. “He was succinct, inspirational, definitely electable, he gets people fired up ... we’ve sensed a lot of momentum with his campaign.”
Romney’s closest rivals in the state are Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, followed by former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has focused his bid to win the Republican presidential nomination almost entirely on New Hampshire.
On Friday, Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China and Singapore, sought to portray Romney as “the status quo.” A Super PAC supporting Huntsman released a new television advertisement in New Hampshire and the Boston area describing Romney as a “chameleon.”
“If your choice is the establishment telling you that we got one candidate to choose from - Governor Romney, who’s got half of Congress supporting him - who’s going to want to change anything when you got the status quo to support you, you got the banking sector to support you,” Huntsman said at a town hall meeting in Portsmouth.
Jim Merrill, a Romney strategist in New Hampshire, said the campaign was not taking its big lead in the polls for granted and continues with an aggressive get-out-the-vote strategy including nightly phone banks, door-knocking, and distributing thousands of yard signs.
“Our strategy is to run like we are three votes down with three minutes to go,” Merrill said.
Esther Kennedy, 42, an independent city councillor from Portsmouth, said she voted for Obama in 2008, but now wanted someone who would be fiscally conservative. She is still undecided on her primary vote.
“(With) Huntsman it was more of a smaller crowd and there wasn’t the excitement and jubilation that people feel here,” she said at Romney’s Hampton event. “You could definitely feel the energy here. Both of them have a good message, but I think that was the difference.”
While elementary school student Paul Mashimo, 10, from Windham, is too young to vote, in the New Hampshire tradition he has been to campaign events for at least five of the Republican presidential candidates.
“I kind of like Newt Gingrich, I kind of like Mitt Romney. But Jon Huntsman never answers the questions,” he said on Saturday after hearing Romney speak. “Newt Gingrich is positive about other people and Mitt Romney wants to fix the economy.”
Editing by Vicki Allen