For Mitt Romney, winning New Hampshire is an absolute must if he is to earn the Republican nomination to run for president in 2012.
As his rivals criss-cross Iowa, Romney is spending a long weekend at events in New Hampshire, trying to build on his lead in the northeastern state ahead of the country's first primary election contest on Jan. 10.
He worked the crowd on Friday at a Union Leader-Salvation Army Santa Fund luncheon. Then he told businesspeople at a forum at a Manchester law firm that government under Democratic President Barack Obama has grown too large and is a burden on the weak U.S. economy.
"You have an important role to play," Romney told them. "You'll be having a big say in the nomination of our candidate for president. I hope you choose me but, if you don't, choose someone who can win."
He faces a simple reality in New Hampshire: Anything less than an outright victory will be a severe setback to his hopes of challenging Obama in the November 2012 election.
Romney is competing on familiar turf since he was governor of neighboring Massachusetts.
"If he doesn't win New Hampshire, he can't win the nomination," said Andy Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
A poll by Magellan Strategies published on Friday said rival Newt Gingrich was gaining in New Hampshire. It had Romney at 29 percent and Gingrich at 27 percent.
The poll suggests a tightening from a big lead Romney has enjoyed for weeks. Romney's New Hampshire campaign director, Jason McBride, said internal polling showed he still has a commanding lead.
Still, Romney has some work to do to close the deal in New Hampshire, such as with John Marino, 79, who was at the Union Leader-Salvation Army event.
"I haven't really made up my mind," said Marino, an independent-leaning Republican. "Romney's a very bright guy. I like Romney but I'm not totally convinced that he's the right man for the job."
But Republican Valerie Earnshaw was convinced, believing Romney's business background would help him as president.
"He knows that, he understands that," she said.
Romney is wary of the social conservatives who dominate Iowa politics and who burned him in 2008 by picking Mike Huckabee over him despite the millions of dollars his campaign spent there.
His low-key approach to Iowa carries some risks. The winner of Iowa's caucuses on Jan. 3 stands to gain important momentum going into New Hampshire a week later, possibly enough to compete with Romney in the state.
For instance, a victory by Gingrich in Iowa and a strong second place finish in New Hampshire could propel him in South Carolina on Jan. 21 - a state where Gingrich's conservative views might have more appeal.
This or other potential outcomes are not lost on Romney's advisers, who are keeping a close eye on Iowa polls.
Romney is among the top candidates in Iowa with an under-the-radar approach and, if it looks like he could seal a high finish or even squeak out a victory in the state, he could step up his efforts in the month before the caucuses.
Romney will be in Iowa on Wednesday and will make other visits in December to test the mood.
But he is skipping two opportunities to reach out to Iowa conservatives this weekend, choosing a New Hampshire town hall meeting in Peterborough instead of a Des Moines forum of conservative activists and a birthday party for Iowa's Republican governor, Terry Branstad.
"You could label it a mistake to skip the governor's birthday party," groused a prominent Iowa Republican activist.
Romney has yet to go up with any TV ads in New Hampshire but he has not needed to as yet.
Since losing the state to the ultimate Republican nominee John McCain in 2008, he has put time and attention into New Hampshire and amassed a strong list of endorsements, led by former Governor John Sununu and former Senator Judd Gregg. He has kept in touch with his 2008 backers and expanded the list.
Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state's Republican Party, switched off his car radio, broadcasting an interview with Romney rival Jon Huntsman, to take a call on his cell phone about the race.
"To actually catch Romney and defeat him in New Hampshire, I just don't see it," he said. "I don't see any candidate capable of putting together the effort that will catch Romney and defeat him. I think it's a wide-open race for second."
While Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House , is on a roll now that Herman Cain and Rick Perry have faded, New Hampshire Republicans are keeping an eye on Huntsman to see if he can make a move.
The Romney team expects the race to tighten as undecided New Hampshire Republicans choose sides but it is just not clear who will benefit - Gingrich, Huntsman, Ron Paul or somebody else.
"The best way to describe the Romney campaign in New Hampshire is that we're running like we're 15 points behind," said a senior Romney adviser.
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