Mitt Romney defended his conservative credentials last week in an interview in Salem.
Throughout the campaign, Republican critics have questioned how truly conservative Romney is.
Tuesday night, it won't matter, because Romney, by all expectations, will be high atop the Republican primary field in New Hampshire and likely on his way to the GOP nomination to oppose President Barack Obama in November.
Romney is well aware of the "true conservative" talk that hovers around Republican primaries in general and this one in particular. He's had to listen to the skeptical questions about his commitment to conservative principles for two primary cycles in New Hampshire.
"Here, it's easier for me to counter than, let's say, some place I'm not terribly well known," Romney said. "People in New Hampshire watched me as governor in a state where the Legislature was 85 percent Democrat."
There's a certain degree of difficulty governing Massachusetts with those kinds of numbers, more than for a governor in a solidly Republican state, was Romney's point.
"They saw I came to office in Massachusetts facing a $3 billion budget gap. I balanced the budget every year, cut taxes 19 times, empowered our state police to enforce immigration laws and instituted English immersion in our schools," Romney said.
Besides all that, Romney said he was known as a pro-life governor and a national leader in standing up for traditional marriage.
"So they see a record that is a solid conservative record," Romney said, though he concedes they may have an issue or two with which they disagree with him.
His critics, Romney said, can't fool the people of New Hampshire.
"My record speaks loudly for people who are close to having seen me in office," Romney said.
Definitions of 'conservative' vary
Travis Blais is the chairman of the Republican Town Committee in Windham.
He said the whole meaning of "true conservative" has been thrown off by the rightward shift of the American electorate, and members of the Republican Party in particular.
On a scale of 0 to 100, with liberal Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., being the 0 and conservative U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., being 100, Romney still fares well, in Blais' view.
"Mitt is still an 85," Blais said. "You're talking about a small distinction."
Derry GOP chairman Jim Foley said this is an ongoing discussion within the Republican Party.
"People define what 'conservative' is," Foley said.
There is an understanding that conservatives share certain core values, Foley said. These include supporting small government, local control and individual rights and liberties.
"It is supposed to be a big tent," Foley said of the Republican Party.
That tent included Sen. Barry Goldwater, idolized by Ronald Reagan.
"Barry Goldwater was pro choice," Foley said.
Apply Foley's core conservative values test to the candidates and you'll come to one conclusion, he said.
"Basically, every one of the Republican candidates is a good conservative," he said.
Santorum, Paul offer variety
Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said voters have "a nice variety" of conservatives to choose among.
There is the new threat to Romney, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a social conservative who is sympathetic to the plight of working Americans.
"He's not quite free market," Scala said. "He sounds a bit like Pat Buchanan."
Blais describes Santorum as a conventional conservative, one who was hampered — until caucus night in Iowa — by a sense that he was unelectable.
Ron Paul, the congressman from Texas, is a libertarian-minded conservative, Scala said. Paul supports legalizing marijuana, Foley said.
In Romney, voters will find a stereotypical New England conservative.
"You don't hear Romney talking about it day and night," Scala said. "He's like Judd Gregg used to be or how Kelly Ayotte is."
Dean Spiliotes, a professor of political science at Southern New Hampshire University, said the true conservative debate is a game of splitting hairs.
"In the grand scheme of the election, they're all in the same policy space," Spiliotes said.
There are differences but it depends on the criteria, Spiliotes said. Some voters base their decision on tax policy, others on military hawkishness, still others on abortion, he said.
Spiliotes contends Republican voters will weigh something else: Which candidate has the best chance of beating President Obama in November.
"In the end, they will vote for who they think will win," Spiliotes said.
Comparisons can surprise some
Ken Eyring is with the Windham-based Southern New Hampshire 9.12 organization. With other liberty-minded groups, it put together a candidate matrix that evaluates the Republicans on 64 issues across nine subject areas ranging from respect for the Constitution to foreign policy.
So far, about 2,000 people from as far as California have gone to southernnh912.com to view the 36-page document.
Eyring said he's looked at the matrix and concluded there's one candidate more conservative than the others, but acknowledges that's his opinion. He would like voters to check the matrix for themselves and make up their own minds.
"We've got candidates people love who aren't what they think they are," Eyring said.
The matrix tracks the candidates' positions, which sometimes, as was the case with Romney, evolved over the years, Eyring said
One of the matrix researchers surprised himself, Eyring recalled.
"He started out strongly supporting one candidate and strongly opposed to another," Eyring said. "The one he was strongly opposing he ended up strongly supporting."
Romney's credentials aren't deterring people from making him a huge favorite Tuesday.
"I still don't see a collapse in the cards for Romney," Scala said.
"I think Mitt Romney is going to win by a sizable margin," Blais said.
"It would be very hard not to assume Mitt Romney will be the winner," said Dayton Duncan, who worked as an aide to Walter Mondale in 1984 and who has written about the primary.
After first, the situation gets cloudy.
Race may be for second place
The battle will be for second, third and fourth place. The contenders are Santorum, Paul, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman Jr., former governor of Utah who skipped Iowa to focus his campaign here.
Corey Lewandowski of Windham, state leader of Americans for Prosperity, said it shouldn't be hard for Romney to get 45 percent or more of the vote.
Blais sees Santorum coming in second. Lewandowski thinks despite the strong showing in Iowa, it will be difficult for Santorum to go from 5 percent in the polls to 20 percent on primary day.
Ask the political watchers what the magic number is this year and they will tell you two or three. That's the number of candidates likely to leave New Hampshire with a chance to continue on the trail.
"Newt Gingrich is on the verge of not having any ticket," Duncan said. "Ron Paul doesn't need a ticket. He's on a different train."
Foley likes the prospects of Gingrich and Santorum, besides Romney.
"I don't see a lot of movement with Paul or Huntsman," Spiliotes said. "Santorum has been at 5 percent in recent polls. If he can get to 15 percent and finish third, that would be respectable."
Scala said Huntsman has been sliding, Santorum seems the only candidate able to make a serious run. Gingrich was riding high in mid-December, but has fallen amid attacks from rivals.
"Gingrich doesn't seem able to re-ignite the engine," Scala said.
"I think the story is going to be how disappointing was Jon Huntsman's performance and perhaps how disappointing Ron Paul's performance is," Blais said.
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