Over the next two weeks, New Hampshire will quietly transform into a proving ground for the Republican 2012 race to recapture the White House. At least 10 potential candidates, from heavyweights like Mitt Romney to obscurities like Fred Karger, are scheduled to visit this month.
They're coming to start building their organizations, and to woo key activists. Those are the people who do the groundwork necessary for a primary payoff — what one Republican consultant calls "the eight-month marathon to the 72-hour sprint."
The importance of that marathon explains why, prior to this flurry of visits, almost every serious potential candidate has hired a top operative from the small but influential world of New Hampshire Republican politics.
The hiring of political consultants like Dave Carney, Rich Killion, and Mike Dennehy may not make headlines, but they are nearly as important as those candidate visits. It signals to activists that the candidate will seriously contest New Hampshire — and spend money there. That makes the candidate worth meeting with, listening to, and perhaps volunteering for or endorsing. In political terms, New Hampshire's natural resource isn't campaign contributors or media attention — it's the pool of campaign activists at the town-by-town level, and these are the guys who can mine that resource.
It wasn't a given that New Hampshire would get this kind of focus. With Romney's off-the-chart favorability ratings and massive polling lead there — as much as 30 points over most of his likely competitors — the others might easily have ceded the state to him. They could have concentrated their time and resources on other early states, like Iowa and South Carolina, while downplaying New Hampshire as a hometown gimme for the former Massachusetts governor and Granite State summer resident.
But conversations with the men (and so far, they are all men) who will be running New Hampshire for the candidates suggests a different tactic. At least for now, everyone seems prepared to compete hard.
That is partly in hopes that Romney's apparent strength in New Hampshire will prove shallow, and that he will end up losing, just as he did to John McCain in 2008.
There is also a belief that, even if Romney wins big, the battle for second, third, and fourth place will be critical in determining who goes forward to Florida, and beyond.
The 2012 candidates have also learned two key lessons from failed 2008-cycle contenders Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee.
Giuliani demonstrated the folly of directing a New Hampshire effort from afar. Although the team did have some natives, it was largely led by out-of-staters, and closely directed by the national campaign.
Huckabee, meanwhile, had almost no New Hampshire organization. That kept him from capitalizing when he emerged as a top-tier candidate, and his poor showing deflated the momentum he had after winning Iowa.
A few potential 2012 candidates may be repeating Huckabee's mistake — including Huckabee himself, who has done nothing to build a potential organization. Neither has Sarah Palin. Michele Bachmann has no New Hampshire organizer yet, at least that anyone knows about. Nor does Donald Trump.