- Mitt Romney is clear favorite in New Hampshire but is still dogged by negative perceptions
- Insiders feel he has flip-flopped too much on key issues and is not a true conservative
- But they like his experience, organization and access to money and resources
If Mitt Romney is able to follow up his razor-thin, first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses with a win in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, he'll be the first GOP presidential candidate to post back-to-back victories in those two states since Gerald R. Ford accomplished that feat in 1976.
Even though Romney is on the cusp of that achievement, so far he remains only a tepid favorite for the GOP presidential nomination in national polls of Republican voters and the CNN New Hampshire Insiders Survey. And many conservative party activists are actively engaged in trying to rally that party's base around an alternative to Romney.
So what's the matter with Mitt?
New Hampshire Republicans have gotten to know Romney well, from his days as the next-door governor of Massachusetts to his unsuccessful run in their 2008 presidential primary to his frequent sightings in Wolfeboro, where he owns a huge vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee. So 52 New Hampshire GOP insiders --including Republican leaders in both chambers of the legislature, local elected and party officials, business and conservative interest group leaders, veterans of previous primary campaigns, Granite State GOP political consultants and variety of other party activists -- were surveyed by CNN and asked about the challenges and strengths of Romney's 2012 presidential candidacy.
The biggest hurdle for Romney to overcome might be the view that like many elected officials and candidates, he shifts with the political winds.
The insiders were asked: What do you think is the biggest challenge to Romney in rallying more Republicans voters around his candidacy nationally?
Perception that he's changed views on issues for political gain -- 52%
Perception that he's not a true conservative -- 40%
Criticism that his vision is not bold enough -- 6%
None of the above (volunteered) -- 2%
"The branding of Romney as a flip-flopper is his greatest liability nationally," said one New Hampshire GOP Insider. "Why it didn't hurt him here is because it was never pushed hard in this campaign by other candidates or the editorial pages [of local newspapers]."
Another GOP Insider noted that the perception that Romney's not a true conservative was "because he's changed his views on key issues for political gain." And a third said simply that Romney has "a trust deficit."
And while Romney may not exactly inspire the rank-and-file with his message, he's not without assets in his latest run for the White House.
They were also asked: What do you think are Romney's strengths in this campaign?
The resources and 2008 experience he brings to this race -- 54%
His business background gives him credibility on economy -- 38%
His vision for the future -- 6%
Resources/2008 experience and business background (volunteered) -- 2%
"There is no doubt he is a better candidate with a better organization this time around," observed one New Hampshire GOP Insider. "The second two [strengths] haven't changed considerably from four years ago." Another insider echoed, "He's done a good job of learning from 2008."
His years in corporate finance and restructuring are also seen as a significant attribute with the sluggish economy.
"His resources and '08 experience are certainly major factors in New Hampshire, but his business background is still what voters care about," averred one GOP Insider.
One insider summed up by noting that the "second time around makes candidates a heck of a lot better. Romney is no different: confident, cool and at ease."
But the Insider added: "That will be tested when he walks through the minefield in South Carolina. If he comes out of it, and he should, he'd be stronger for it."