From Front-Runner's Perch in N.H., Romney Talks Spending Cuts

From Front-Runner's Perch in N.H., Romney Talks Spending Cuts

By Scott Conroy - November 4, 2011

EXETER, N.H. -- If his substantial lead in the polls here wasn't enough evidence that Mitt Romney is the heavy favorite to win the New Hampshire primary, his well-attended and adeptly executed speech here on Thursday night served as confirmation.

Before a standing room crowd of over 300, Romney glanced only sporadically at his notes as he kept his remarks focused on one topic: his plan to reduce federal spending.

His message appeared to hit its target, as the crowd applauded several times and created an energy level inside Exeter Town Hall that has rarely been seen in New Hampshire during this presidential cycle.

“Of all the money spent in America, about a quarter is being spent by the federal government,” Romney said in a speech that he will flesh out in more detail Friday in Washington, D.C. “My objective, by the end of my first term, if I’m lucky enough to become president, is to get that 25 percent down to 20 percent.”

An eye-catching banner reading “Cut the Spending” hung onstage behind the candidate, and the optics of the event were enhanced by the presence of former New Hampshire governors John Sununu and Judd Gregg -- Romney’s high-profile surrogates in the state, both of whom lavished praise on the GOP front-runner.

The event’s success was emblematic of just how far the rest of the Republican field has to go if anyone is to overtake the former Massachusetts governor in the Granite State down the stretch.

Romney, who often fights perceptions that he is too stiff and unrelatable to voters, even generated some laughs early in his remarks. “As you know, I came to be the governor of a state just to the south of here," he said. "I appreciate you letting me over the border tonight -- your border security is much too lax.”

The voters on hand seemed receptive when Romney laid out the basic tenets of his spending plan, the focal points of which are such familiar ideas as the elimination of some federal programs, the scaling back of foreign aid, and a reduction of the federal workforce.

“I’m going to dramatically increase the penalties for those people who steal from taxpayers and the public good,” he said in discussing part of his plan to combat fraud, which again drew applause from the crowd.

Despite his strong standing in New Hampshire, the two months until the primary is still a long time in presidential politics, and some of those in attendance said in brief interviews that Romney still has to earn their votes.

“I don’t know if I’m any more informed than I was before,” Joe Ripple of nearby Kensington said after the speech. “If I had to decide tonight, I’d pick Mitt Romney, but I’m going to see what else is out there. Normally I’m committed early.”

Ripple’s wife, Alma, said that she was impressed by Romney’s appearance but was not yet ready to jump aboard his bandwagon. “It was a great message, but you never know if they can follow through,” she said. “I’m going wait a little bit.”

Voters like the Ripples did not have the opportunity to probe Romney further, as the candidate broke from New Hampshire tradition -- and his own campaign’s norms -- by not taking a single question from the audience or the media in what was his lone public event of the day.

A spokesman for Jon Huntsman, who typically answers voters’ questions until they are close to running out of them, was quick to pounce on his opponent's reticence.

"Once again Mitt Romney is unwilling to do it the New Hampshire way and take questions from voters,” Huntsman spokesman Michael Levoff said. “Perhaps it's because he has two answers to every question.”

Romney’s decision appeared to be a strategic move designed to keep attention on his fiscal policies, rather than risk diverting it to the scandal involving Herman Cain and past allegations of sexual harassment. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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