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McCain vs. Romney in New Hampshire

By Reid Wilson

CONCORD AND PORTSMOUTH, NH - As former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's astonishing rise in Iowa polls continues, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is faced with the possibility that his campaign will need to get its first win in New Hampshire. There, though, instead of the relatively untested Huckabee, Romney will face a difficult challenge in maintaining his lead over Arizona Senator John McCain.

Beating McCain will not be easy, even with a two-digit lead. But Romney should not fear having to make a contrast between himself and McCain. In a GOP field in which every candidate disappoints some large segment of the conservative base, approaches to leadership are becoming an important distinction between them. Republicans in New Hampshire, presented with McCain and Romney as choices, have been given two completely opposite approaches to the presidency from which to choose.

The two candidates could not be more different: Mitt Romney's background is as a chief executive officer, a venture capitalist and a Harvard-trained lawyer and MBA. John McCain's background is as a fighter pilot, a prisoner of war and an independent mind who has no trouble reminding people that he graduated in the bottom third of his class at the Naval Academy. Both would bring leadership to the Oval Office. But their backgrounds and life experiences are as completely opposite as any two candidates in the race.

Recent polls show Romney running well ahead of all other Republicans in New Hampshire. The latest RCP New Hampshire Average shows Romney with a wide 15.2-point lead over McCain, who hovers just one point above Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani, though, is focusing more on later states like Florida and the myriad contests slated for February 5. His campaign presence in New Hampshire is a fraction of Romney's and McCain's. Given Romney's lead in the polls and McCain's time commitment to the state, the race is shaping up to be a two-man contest.

Romney's approach is as the successful CEO. Having saved Dominoes, Staples and the Salt Lake City Olympics, he embodies the calm, competent manager. Romney the CEO was evident in a debate in early October, when, asked if he would get Congressional authorization to take action against Iranian nuclear facilities, said a president has to "sit down with your attorneys." The remark, much criticized at the time, spoke to his overriding approach: Romney wants to run the government like a business, and a good CEO knows when to involve lawyers to figure out what responses are appropriate.

Thanks to the challenges Romney says the country faces, only the style of a non-politician can move the country forward. "During our modern history, to become president, it's typically required someone to run through a political career," Romney said in an interview in Concord. "I don't think that's necessarily the right course when you face the kinds of challenges we do today, economically, from a global competition standpoint, and the challenges we face from a military standpoint. I don't think you're going to find out of the box thinking from inside the Beltway politicians."

Many have commented on Giuliani's reliance on CompStat, a statistics-based program that allowed New York City police to identify crime trends and effective means of combating them. Romney, too, is obsessed numbers, and during his time at Bain Capitol, he gave client companies new and different strategies based on thorough assessments of their situations. What he brings to the table, he said, is "the ability to make difficult decisions based upon analysis, debate, rigorous examination of data and a process of leadership which builds consensus to develop a strategy, and then benchmarks whether the strategy is working."

"Most people in the private sector, who begin a business or become a head of a big company or begin a new enterprise of some kind, have not been in that [industry] all their life, but instead they bring the skills of leadership to bear on the new circumstance," Romney said. Former General Electric CEO "Jack Welch for instance: You could drop Jack in to run a state, he'd do real well, thank you very much."

McCain's approach to leadership is much different. Having served in the Senate for the past twenty one years, no Republican can claim better knowledge of foreign relations than McCain can. He told reporters aboard the Straight Talk Express last week that he has met Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf some twenty times, and scolded President Bush for failing to see Russian President Vladimir Putin for anything but the ex-KGB officer he is. Further, because of McCain's five and a half years as a prisoner of war, no other candidate has dared challenge his supremacy on defense and veterans' issues.

It is remarkable that, in general election matchups, McCain polls closer to Hillary Clinton than any other Republican. He is closely associated with the war in Iraq, so much so that when the so-called troop surge was first announced, former Senator John Edwards took to calling it the McCain strategy. And yet McCain is tied or better with Clinton, while every other Republican trails her in most polls.

There are two reasons for McCain's over-performance: The war is becoming a less important issue, and McCain's personal story lends him a credibility on national security and defense issues that no other candidate, Democrat or Republican, can claim. Few trust what President Bush has to say on the war; everyone trusts McCain.

The Straight Talk Express, aptly named for McCain's free and open relationship with the press, is another reason the once nearly bankrupt candidate is not only continuing but doing well in New Hampshire. While other candidates are suspected of playing to a crowd, McCain will tell it like it is. He is uncomfortable pandering to an audience. The best he can do, at a stop in Raymond, New Hampshire, is to tell them that he bought a pair of Timberland hiking shoes during an earlier stop that day in Stratham. He tells audiences that he is pandering to them when he reminds them that he supports New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary status. But he launches full-throated defenses of his most controversial initiatives: He argued so much with one man in Raymond, who disagreed with McCain's stand on immigration, that the man stood and walked out. He is unapologetic about campaign finance reform, and he says the reason Republicans lost in 2006 was not the war in Iraq but the failed war on government spending.

McCain's attitude is clear: He knows the right answers and the right solutions, thanks to his years of experience in the Senate. He is combative when someone disagrees. He is simply correct. The former Naval aviator most embodies Tom Cruise's character in Top Gun, appropriately coined Maverick. And because of that attitude, the crowds in New Hampshire love him.

While it seems that Romney projects cool competence, McCain inspires raw emotions; people either love him or hate him. McCain, in short, knows what needs to be done. Romney, in short, will bring to bear his analytical skills to find out what needs to be done. Both styles of leadership have worked in the past. Whichever one New Hampshire voters find themselves more comfortable with could determine whether Romney or McCain has the opportunity to compete in subsequent primaries.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at

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