Mitt Romney's Rebound Plan

By political reporter David Miller.

For Mitt Romney, this was supposed to be the easy part.

His original game plan called for him to cruise off a big win in Iowa to the primary in New Hampshire, where voters more focused on fiscal conservatism than social issues like abortion - an issue on which Romney's shifting views have drawn scrutiny - would reward the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts with another victory and propel him toward the GOP nomination.

In fact, even when Mike Huckabee began his ascendance in Iowa, one that culminated in his convincing victory in Thursday's caucuses, New Hampshire was still viewed as a firewall for the Romney campaign. Polls there showed him with a solid lead - but that collapsed in the two weeks preceding the caucuses, when John McCain, once beleagured, quickly caught up to Romney, and in some surveys, even passed him.

Winning in Iowa would have been the best way to reverse that situation - and since that did not come to pass, the Romney campaign is now shifting gears by borrowing a page from the book of an unlikely candidate: Barack Obama, whose message of change helped him win Iowa's Democratic contest.

At an event in Manchester on Friday, Romney seemed to work the "c-word" in at every possible opportunity.

"If you really want to have change, you don't just want to have a gadfly or somebody fighting for this or fighting for that," Romney said. "You want to have somebody who will bring change, who will sell the company America has - it's going to have to be somebody from outside Washington, not a Washington insider."

Sometimes, he even gets the word in twice in one sentence: "I've seen how change can change an industry," he said, capping off an anecdote detailing his investment in the office supply store that grew into the Staples chain.

But for all the talk of change, some aspects of Romney's campaign haven't. Take his advertising. In New Hampshire, the target is different - it's McCain instead of Huckabee - but in terms of look and structure, his spots in the two states are identical. In both cases, there's an initial nicety, describing Romney and, most recently, McCain as "two good men."

After that comes harsh criticism of McCain's views on immigration and tax cuts - a method McCain has said didn't work in Iowa and wouldn't work in New Hampshire.

But the Romney campaign believes the ads weren't why Romney lost in Iowa, and the results there should not be seen as proof of their ineffectiveness.

"I don't agree that we lost to Huckabee because we ran ads," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. "I think Huckabee won because he identified with a lot of the core voters out there, such as evangelicals, on a lot of social conservative issues. He had a lot of voters he identified with, with what is a traditional, conservative part of that base out there. He did a good job doing that. We competed with Mike Huckabee on those votes, and we met our vote goals pretty much."

Besides, Madden said, McCain's logic is obscured by what they see as hypocrisy: McCain is also airing ads critical of Romney in New Hampshire, including one that uses images of gun-toting terrorists before accusing Romney of having no foreign policy credentials.

"All the messages that's we've put here have been substantive and relevant," Madden said. "Look at John McCain's messaging: he's done nothing but attack us the last couple of weeks."

The campaign also believes depicting McCain as a "Washington insider" will work, despite the Arizona senator's reputation for being a maverick unafraid to go against GOP orthodoxy.

"I think what people want is substantive change," Madden said. "They want a solution-oriented approach, not a maverick-oriented approach. A maverick-oriented approach means you tend to go against the grain, and as we know that's not exactly going to get anything done, and there hasn't been a long record of results, of meaningful reform, exhibited by Sen. McCain in 25-plus years in Congress."

The pitch could work - state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen said McCain's image in the state isn't like it was eight years ago, when he defeated George W. Bush in the 2000 primary.

"This time around McCain has made a conscious effort to court the so-called establishment as well as retain a bit of the maverick image," Cullen said. "He isn't running against he system the way he did eight years ago."

McCain isn't Romney's only concern, however. Huckabee was trailing badly in New Hampshire before the caucuses, but his win there could give him a boost unlikely to fade with the primary only three days away.

"As a tactical matter, Huckabee's success in Iowa means there are hundreds of people in New Hampshire who are at least taking a second look at him," Cullen said.

And the two candidates are running campaigns that couldn't be more different. Romney often pitches himself to New Hampshire voters as CEO in chief, discussing his success in business, in reviving the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games, and in working with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in Massachusetts to implement universal health care.

"You've only got one guy running for president who's signed the front of an employment check," Romney said Friday.

Compare that with a line delivered by Huckabee only hours earlier: "One of the reasons I did well in Iowa, and I'll do well here, is that people realized that they want a president who reminds them of the guy they worked with, not the guy who laid them off."

The disparate messages may be emblematic of a growing divide in the Republican Party, which is seeing the coalition built by Ronald Reagan - between blue-collar workers, the business community and Christian conservatives - put under severe distress, said GOP consultant Mike Collins.

"I think it's more of a universal problem than a Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee or Fred Thompson solution. We're battling for the soul of the Republican Party," he said. "You have very discrete elements of this party that are coming apart at the seams."

Yet Romney's campaign maintains that they, alone among the GOP field, have support that is deep and broad enough to keep Republicans unified - an essential for winning in November.

"A lot of the other candidates seem to be working on a slingshot effect - do well in one state and hope it builds momentum for other states," Madden said. "We have a greater ability to motivate our organization as well as deploy the resources across several states in order to compete."

But ironically, Romney may now be reliant on the same slingshot effect, even as they maintain they could survive a second-place finish - one that most observers agree would be a devastating loss, given the high expectations driven by campaign's large organization and vast financial resources.

Romney's core of New Hampshire supporters isn't dispirited though, said state Sen. Bruce Keough, who chairs the candidate's organization in the Granite State.

"Iowa does its thing and now we do ours," he said. "Historically, New Hampshire people have been independent. We make up our own minds."

However, despite what the campaigns - and many New Hampshire voters - say, the reality is that the Iowa results, at the very least, can unsettle the field, if not change its order, Cullen said.

"Everyone wants to think they're immune to outside influences, but that's just not true," he said.

By David Miller