For months, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has owned this state. A next-door neighbor with a vacation home here, Romney has had a double-digit lead over his fellow Republicans in the nation's first primary state, a hallmark of his highly disciplined campaign for the presidency.
Now, that lead has all but evaporated. The latest polls show him running neck-and-neck with former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has beefed up his campaign staff and flooded the state with direct mail to make up for his infrequent visits. And a revived Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the darling of New Hampshire in 2000, in nipping at both of their heels.
Romney's drop, which has come despite him spending millions of dollars on television commercials here and years building a ground operation, has turned the Granite State into a tossup three months before the voting takes place.
"It's more competitive than people realize on the Republican side," said Jennifer Donahue, a senior adviser for political affairs at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. "First place is up for grabs with an edge towards Romney. You have McCain and [former Arkansas governor Mike] Huckabee in pretty good shape to be the alternative."
Romney no longer has the airwaves to himself. McCain has launched his first television ads, one of which ends with the candidate invoking New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" motto. Rivals say they expect Giuliani's first commercials here within weeks. Former actor and senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) has slowly begun assembling an operation and now has three paid staffers in the state. Huckabee, desperate for money to boost his effort, is emphasizing "authenticity" and hoping that it still counts.
With summer gone, the sniping in New Hampshire has intensified, particularly between Romney and Giuliani.
Late last week, as both men crisscrossed the state is search of hands to shake and babies to hug, their campaigns clashed on taxes, one of the biggest issues for Republicans and independents in New Hampshire, where residents pay no income or sales taxes.
Romney accused Giuliani of lacking seriousness on spending because of his opposition to a presidential line-item veto and support for a commuter tax. Giuliani's campaign hit back within hours, with backer Paul Cellucci, also a former Massachusetts governor, attacking Romney for not lowering taxes during four years in office, and saying that "there appears to be some desperation" in his campaign.
The next day, Romney's campaign continued the fight, alleging in a release that "Mayor Giuliani sued Republicans to keep $360 million commuter tax in place." Giuliani's team responded with a release about "Romney's Taxachusetts hypocrisy."
Romney's backers dismiss the importance of his dwindling lead here.
"Till the leaves fall and we've plowed a couple of times, the numbers don't matter," said Tom Rath, a senior Romney adviser.
Romney is counting on a one-two punch that would begin with a victory in the Iowa caucuses just after New Year's Day and continue with a win in New Hampshire, providing momentum to boost his standing nationally.
Advisers say Romney will continue to stress that he is "not a Washington creature" and to talk about his experience in the private sector -- qualities they say appeal to Republicans here as well as to the 40 percent of New Hampshire voters who do not declare a party preference but are allowed to vote in either primary.
In other words, the very voters that Giuliani is aiming to win over.
"The people of New Hampshire tend to be very independent, and they make their own decisions," Giuliani told reporters in Manchester last week. "All we can do is continue to campaign here and try to get our message out here and hope we do really well."
Roger Bissonnette, 54, a retired contractor from Manchester, is an undecided Republican.
"I like John McCain," he said at breakfast at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester on Wednesday. Citing McCain's determination to finish the job in Iraq, Bissonnette said, "I think he deserves a shot at it."
But he quickly added: "I like Rudy, too. Rudy would be a good choice, too. It's a tossup. What he did in New York after 9/11 ... showed real leadership."
Bissonnette is the type of voter McCain is hoping to woo away from the front-runners as he prays for a shocking victory that will resuscitate his struggling campaign.
McCain's advisers acknowledge that it is here -- the scene of his upset victory over George W. Bush seven years ago -- that he must make a dramatic statement. In 2000, aides note, he raised more than $2 million the day after winning the New Hampshire primary.
Said an aide for one current rival: "McCain is absolutely formidable. This guy won this primary. He has the blueprint for success."
McCain's challenge is to again attract the independents who flocked to him in 2000. Surveys show that those voters overwhelmingly oppose the war in Iraq, a position at odds with McCain's insistence that the war continue.
The only Republican candidate in agreement with those independents is Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), whose long-shot campaign now has $5 million in the bank. His libertarian philosophy is a good fit for some in New Hampshire who take the state's motto to heart. The Free State Project, a group whose aim is to attract 20,000 "liberty-loving" people to move to the state, features Paul prominently on its Web site.
In the latest poll by the University of New Hampshire, Paul earned 4 percent of support, behind former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who has since said he will not be a presidential candidate in 2008.
Still, advisers to all the presidential campaigns say they do not quite know what to expect when primary day arrives.
"There's no manual written for what we are doing," said Brent Seaborn, strategy director for the Giuliani campaign, which has assembled a team of a dozen operatives in New Hampshire and has been aggressively targeting likely voters with fliers. "You can't rip a page out of a strategy book."
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. and washingtonpost.com staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company