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Romney Looking for an Obama Shield Against Rivals

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney confer onstage between debates. (Reuters).

By Dan Balz
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Among the gawkers on the street around the corner from Barack Obama's first campaign event here Sunday morning were four of the most senior members of Mitt Romney's campaign: Stuart Stevens, Russ Schriefer, Alex Castellanos and Ron Kaufman.

It was coincidence that brought them to the blocked off street where Obama's motorcade was idling. They were gathered to film a two-minute closing television ad for Romney.

But their presence -- and their absolute conviction that Obama will win the Democratic primary here on Tuesday -- neatly symbolized the former Massachusetts governor's current plight. He desperately needs Obama's help.

Romney's high command may be right or wrong about Obama's prospects here, but there is no question that they are all rooting for a big Obama victory over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

The better Obama does, they believe, the more independents votes he will deny John McCain, the current GOP front-runner in New Hampshire. The fewer independents who vote in the Republican primary, the better Romney will do.

It has come to that for Romney, once the solid leader here in New Hampshire, just as he was once the seemingly solid leader in Iowa. Now he is struggling to head off a second straight defeat that could doom his candidacy.

His downward slide has produced an almost ghoulish glee among his rivals. Romney has turned out to be the unifier in the Republican field, disliked by all his rivals in a way that is rarely seen in presidential campaigns. The collective disdain for Romney may have been the most arresting story line coming out of Saturday's GOP debate at Saint Anselm College.

Candidates travel in a collective bubble for months before the first contests. They intersect at a distance in small towns and familiar venues in Iowa and New Hampshire. They study each other's moves. And they get a sense of each other's characters and personalities through their many hours of debates and joint appearances.

Friendships form in the holding rooms at debates as familiarity grows. Cliques develop that you can see on stage. Sometimes it is for strategic reasons, as was clear when John Edwards turned into Obama's wingman against Clinton in Saturday's Democratic debate. Sometimes it is admiration, sometimes it is just finding someone who can share a joke over the bizarre process they are all going through.

Whatever the case, Romney has found himself on the outside of the GOP candidate circle and treated by some of the New Hampshire press with a disrespect approaching contempt. The Concord Monitor endorsed McCain and called Romney a "phony."

The Union Leader, the conservative beacon in the state, unexpectedly endorsed McCain -- never a darling of the right -- and has shown the power and persistence of the print media with daily editorials on the front page boosting his candidacy. On most days, those editorials praise McCain by attacking Romney.

On Saturday the candidates joined in. "Governor, don't try to characterize my position," Romney lectured Iowa winner Mike Huckabee.

"Which one?" Huckabee shot back.

"You know we're wise to talk about policies and not to make personal attacks," Romney pleaded.

Romney spent the evening attempting to argue that he is, among the Republicans, the change-oriented candidate and therefore best able to run against Obama if the Illinois senator were to win the Democratic nomination.

Toward the end, a sarcastic McCain deadpanned, "Governor, we disagree on a lot of issues but I agree you are the candidate of change."

Romney at first didn't seem to get it, but as the laughter from others on the stage made clear that McCain's words were not intended as a compliment, he responded, "The continued personal barbs are interesting but unnecessary."

Why does he draw such attacks? "Because he is very willing to hit them, often throwing the first punch, and they think he is throwing stones from a glass house," one GOP strategist not affiliated with a candidate, wrote in an e-mail Sunday. "They perceive that he is criticizing them for taking positions that he himself held only a couple of years ago."

From other strategists, some with a stake in the outcome, come words like "arrogant" and "entitlement." From a Romney loyalist came this explanation: "Perfection. He seems perfect. And perfection is so rare and so difficult, especially in human beings, that it is resented. Perfection = false. A man who doesn't sweat is resented. It all seems to come easily to him. Of course, the inner turmoil isn't evident."

The Romney advisers on the street corner in Manchester Sunday morning offered additional explanations. Romney, they said, has taken from both McCain and Giuliani at different points in this campaign what they assumed was theirs. Each was a front-runner and then he wasn't, thanks in part to Romney.

They also argued that Romney is the lone candidate who had multiple paths to the nomination. Huckabee banked everything on Iowa and had to take Romney down to win. McCain must win New Hampshire and needs to take Romney down to do so. Romney was the favorite in Michigan because he grew up there, and other candidates have made him the target there.

But there is more than strategic necessity that has brought the collective derision down on Romney's head in the final days here in New Hampshire. It is payback in a competition that can be brutal when the stakes are as high as they are in the GOP race. Entertaining to some in rival campaigns, it must be misery for Mitt.

So his team stands now cheering on Obama in what may be the most ironic twist of the strange Republican campaign.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 6, 2008; 1:59 PM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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