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Thursday, August 25, 2011

New Hampshire Wildcard: The Union Leader

With Rick Perry surging among GOP primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina, Mitt Romney has maintained a sizable lead in polling of New Hampshire Republicans all year. But in the wake of his splashy entry into the race, Perry has also moved into second place in New Hampshire, a place that often bucks national trends, and upends presidential politics in the process.

There are still at least four months to go before Republican voters start casting their ballots in the presidential primary election, so the pecking order in the early nominating states is certain to change before any actual votes are cast. One thing won’t change, however: The critical nature of New Hampshire to the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. All along, the Romney team has made no secret of its goal to post a big victory in the Granite State. But with Perry on the move in the Hawkeye and Palmetto States -- which flank New Hampshire on the voting calendar -- and creeping up on him in his top targeted state, a decisive win there might be even more vital.

A potential pitfall for Romney: The conservative editorial page of the New Hampshire Union Leader, whose endorsements continue to carry significant sway with the state’s Republican voters. (For one thing, they print them on the front page.)

And right now, said former state GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen about the paper’s endorsement in this cycle’s presidential primary battle, “Romney doesn’t seem to be in position to get it.”

The editorial portion of the publication beat up Romney four years ago, and it hasn’t gone easy on him this cycle, either.

Witness the Union Leader’s Wednesday editorial, “The 10th Amendment: Romney’s Weak Argument,” which takes the candidate to task for his defense of Massachusetts’ health care reform. It dings him throughout and ends: “Like all Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney extols the 10th Amendment. But in practice, he clearly believes that the Bill of Rights actually allows individual states to limit freedom in ways that undercut two centuries of adherence to the Founders’ vision of limited government. To Romney, that’s not just arcane constitutional theory. It appears to be his style of governing.”

What’s more, it was published on a morning when Romney was scheduled to begin a two-day tour of the state.

As Cullen described it, “The Union Leader is different than most newspapers. When they hit something, they hit it again and again and again with repeated editorials. And not only will they attack you, they will pump up someone they do like.”

This has long been the case in New Hampshire, and historically has been one hazards of the obstacle course that comprises the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. For many years, the publisher of the conservative paper was the irascible and highly intemperate William Loeb. His endorsement was much coveted -- as much to keep candidates out of the line of Loeb’s fire as anything else -- but it was also a mixed blessing because of the backlash factor.

In the 1980 campaign, Bill Loeb’s last, he wasn’t content to endorse Ronald Reagan; he also referred to former President Gerald Ford as “Jerry the Jerk,” and he called Betty Ford “stupid” and “immoral.” The Fords had plenty of company: Dwight Eisenhower was called a “stinking hypocrite” by Loeb; John F. Kennedy was “the No. 1 liar in the U.S.A.”; and Henry Kissinger was “Kissinger the Kike.”

Loeb’s mantle was carried on after his 1981 death by his widow, Nackey, with help from her handpicked editor-in-chief, Joe McQuaid, who is now the Union Leader’s publisher. McQuaid toned down paper’s peculiarities, but not its feisty conservatism or it’s penchant for the hard rhetorical kick in the groin.

At this point in the cycle, Romney has had to bear the brunt of those attacks.

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