The Other Guys

New Hampshire Republicans sip lemonade and try to pick just one favorite candidate.

Tim Pawlenty

GREENFIELD, N.H.—First you notice John Burt’s tie. It’s a bold, money-colored green, stitched with gold letters that read “CAPITALIST TOOL.” Burt proudly shows it off and tells the story. It was a gift from Steve Forbes, a memento after the two-time presidential candidate appeared on Burt’s independent politics show.

“I interviewed him and he sent it to me personally!” says Burt. “I got that in the mail, and I thought: Oh, my God.”

Burt’s addiction to politics only got worse after that. He ran for the state legislature in 2010 on a platform of undoing years of tax hikes passed by the Granite State’s ascendant Democrats and punishing the “Republicans In Name Only.” He won, as did nearly 300 other Republican candidates for the 400-member lower House, and most of the GOP’s candidates for the State Senate.

The lesson from that was pretty obvious to Republicans in New Hampshire: Campaign on exactly what we think. Take Barack Obama’s record apart. Say (almost) whatever you want. You’ll win. Understand that, and you can understand why the voters who will winnow out their parties’ nominees want them to be a hell of a lot bolder than they are now. And so as he gets ready to emcee a Flag Day picnic here for members of the Hillsborough County Republican Committee, Burt says he wants his candidates to follow the conservative movement’s lead.

“I was definitely a Romney guy in 2008,” says Burt. “I just don’t know this time. The two that I do like are [Rick] Santorum and [Tim] Pawlenty. I listen to both of them, and they speak the truth. The mistakes they make, they admit them. I’m a Tea Party guy, and we just want to hear him say, ‘You’re right, it wasn’t the correct thing to do. We tried it in Massachusetts and it failed.’ “

It’s basically impossible to find a Republican primary voter who disagrees with this, even as Romney maintains a strong lead in the state. As the Hillsborough Republicans eat hamburgers and drank lemonade, the University of New Hampshire and the Boston Globe put out a poll giving Romney the backing of 41 percent of primary voters. No other candidate got out of single digits. But the same poll showed Republicans opposed to the Affordable Care Act by a 77-10 margin, and opposed to the idea of a health care mandate—an idea that grew out of the conservative movement—by a 78-17 margin.

Can Romney be beaten in New Hampshire? Can he be bloodied up enough to take him down somewhere else? Maybe he can, if Republican voters here dig in on health care. The party activists in Hillsborough weren’t just dug in. They’d put up lawn furniture.

“It bugs me when I see the media try to push Romney on us,” says Stephen Lee, a local Republican chairman. He sells patriotic T-shirts and bumper stickers; he was wearing one of his own designs, reading No More [picture of a Democratic donkey]-Holes. “I’m looking for an honest pro-American conservative. Last time we went with John McCain, and he’s an honorable man, but he did not excite the base at all.”

The picnickers are lucky: They’re going to hear from two Republicans who live to excite them. Shortly after 12:30, Herman Cain arrives, trailed by cameras, and starts shaking hands. Everyone in the room gets the full shot of Cain charm—a grip on the shoulder, a laugh like a 727 taking off. His stump speech is all declarative sentences and optimism. He quotes the theme song that closed the 2000 Olympic games. He tells Washington not to screw up, and not to pass “comprehensive immigration reform—Charlie!” The “Charlie” is Rep. Charlie Bass, standing in the grub line. (He smiles and rolls with it; he agrees with Cain anyway.)

“I have run stuff, fixed stuff, turned stuff around, started stuff, and solved stuff,” says Cain. “I have a long record of stuff and I want to take it to the White House!”

One of the uncompromising state representatives has a question. Jordan Ulery asks Cain why Obama wants to appoint Elizabeth Warren to his administration, given that her expertise is in bankruptcy. Is the United States bankrupt?

“Are we broke?” asks Cain. He leans into the microphone. “Yesssss!” He gives his prescription for how to avoid defaulting on the debt.

“Pay the interest on the debt, so we don’t default and have to pay more interest,” says Cain. “Pay the military and our families. Don’t shortchange our fighting men and women. Send out those Social Security checks. People depend on them. Send out those Medicare bills. Then the rest is on the table. The strategy of this administration is, don’t do anything, let it get close to the last minute, so they could tell the American people they have no choice.”

He’s a hit. Some of the people who ask him questions quickly locate Cain campaign buttons and stick them onto lapels. And that answer on the debt is a lot more than Romney’s been giving—he, like congressional Republicans, is open to raising the debt ceiling if the vote comes with spending cuts. But the base is moving the game board. Ulery loved Cain’s debt answer. He thinks China is planning for America to default or get so deep in hock that it loses the superpower wars.

“If you can’t defeat them military, defeat them economically,” he says. “That’s Sun Tzu.”

There are a few more speeches, and some milling around, before Pawlenty can start. State GOP Chairman John Kimble reminds the crowd that defeat in this election means victory for “socialist, European” policies and means that the veterans who sacrificed for America had worked “in vain.” And Pawlenty has just appeared on Fox News Sunday, where he coined the term “Obamneycare” to attack the law that gives Republican night terrors. He combines his speech with an attack on other candidates. It’s subtle, but hard to miss, when he talks about the candidate Republicans need.

“Is this somebody whose words and deeds match up in their life?” asks Pawlenty. “Do they have a record not just of giving a speech, or offering a failed amendment in Congress—do they have a record of getting things done?”

After he’s done, reporters press Pawlenty on “Obamneycare” and whether or not he’s going to start opening up a front against the 40-point frontrunner. Does he not buy Mitt Romney’s response to the attack—that his state plan and the federal plan aren’t really comparable?

“President Obama said in his own words that he patterned Obamacare after the health care plan in Massachusetts, merged those two things together.”

Same question.

“I was just making the point that the president himself embraces the Massachusetts health care plan as the blueprint for what they did with Obamacare. So I referenced and cited the president’s own words in that regard.”

Same question.

“I was just making the point that the president said that the Massachusetts plan was the blueprint for Obamacare.”

Same question.

The message gets out there, but Pawlenty isn’t relishing it. That could be because he’s holding his ammo for the debate, or it could be that he wants to dodge the sand trap that candidates like Fred Thompson have ended up in—becoming known for attacks and nothing else. There’s a promised land for these candidates, in which Mitt Romney is reeling from voter anger over the health care bill, over assault weapons (to pick another issue a Greenfield Republican raised with me), over his record. How do you get there?

“There are too many candidates,” shrugs one activist as he sips a lemonade. “It’s hard to settle.”

Join David Weigel and John Dickerson for a live Facebook chat Tuesday at 10 a.m. EST to discuss the second GOP primary debate and all of the latest news surrounding the 2012 election.