REPUBLICAN Mitt Romney was to wrap up his presidential campaign where it began, in the swing state of New Hampshire, whose four electoral college votes are up for grabs in the knife-edge race.
Just an hour’s drive from his long-time vacation home in Wolfeboro, he was set to hold a final rally here, in the Granite state’s biggest city, appearing at 10,000 seat arena with Kid Rock. The singer-songwriter, best known for the single American Bad Ass, has become a staple of the campaign’s last days.
“He’s a New Hampshire boy. We know Mitt,” said Scott, lunching with two friends in the 8 Doors Down restaurant in the city’s downtown. “We know what he’s done, we know the family. He knows regulation is strangling small businesses. He knows healthcare is stymieing small business and growth.”
The financier, whose grandfather emigrated here from Scotland, asked for his last name not to be used because of his work.
“The government has gotten out of control,” said Mike, sitting with him. “We just need to make the government smaller.”
In typically liberal New England, New Hampshire, wedged between Vermont and Maine, has always stood out for fiscally conservative, anti-tax politics that verge on libertarian. It was the first US state to declare independence from Britain and treasures a rugged individuality, from healthcare to compulsory seat belts.
Radio ads for the Republican challenger for the governor’s seat here stress he would protect women’s rights. “It’s live free or die,” said Scott, quoting the state’s famous motto.
“We just don’t like big government telling us what to do. Don’t get me started.”
New Hampshire has a population of barely 1.4 million, but is historically a key testing ground for would-be presidents. This year, it has become a small, but vital swing state.
The extended Romney clan has gathered annually at his multi-million lakeside home, with competitive family games in the so-called “Romney Olympics”, since the days when the partriarch was governor of neighbouring Massachusetts.
But Barack Obama carried New Hampshire in the 2008 general election by ten percentage points. This time polls show he and Mr Romney are locked in a dead heat, on 48 per cent each, as they strive towards the 270 electoral college votes that will give one of them the presidency.
With buses ferrying volunteers from both parties into the state, big visiting names have included Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of president John F Kennedy. In 2008, she made headlines by saying Mr Obama could be as inspirational to Americans as her father was.
Mr Obama and Bill Clinton, increasingly his campaign frontman, campaigned here at the weekend, with Mr Clinton appearing twice. “Folks, the hour is late and time is short,” the former president told voters, as the Fleetwood Mac song Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow) blared out.
“New Hampshire, we know our ideas work,” Mr Obama told a crowd outside the state capitol building in Concord. “We tried them and they worked for middle-class families.
“We tried giving big tax cuts to the wealthiest. And what did we get? Falling incomes and record deficits that we’ve been cleaning up ever since.”
Some polls suggested a tiny margin opening up for Mr Obama, but others suggested independent voters, may be moving to Mr Romney. There are more independent voters here than registered Democrat and Republicans combined, said Rodney Doherty, executive editor of New Hampshire’s Foster’s Daily Democrat newspaper, a Republican-leaning newspaper.
In the past two years, the state has swung to the right, he said, but there may also be a backlash against them on social issues like abortion and conservation. The lowering of taxes on cigarettes in the name of personal freedom cost state coffers $28 million and may have back-fired. “The rancour between the two parties has frustrated the general public,” he said.
Mr Romney’s holiday home may carry liabilities too – at least according to Mike Shoenegge, standing in the street outside the restaurant with a sign reading “Job Creators for Obama”.
“When you talk about income equality, that is a screaming example of it,” he said. “He comes from a background of wealth, not wealth creation.”
Across the road, at Meet Me At Eliza’s, a “consignment store” for second-hand clothes, owner Laurie Wilder said of Mr Romney: “I would never vote for him, ever.” He was anti-gay, and against state assistance, she said, which put money back into the economy and on which many customers relied.
This week, she was getting up to 15 or 20 campaign calls a day, many of them automated. She said: “I got a Clint Eastwood one. It was after his performance at the convention, too. I don’t know how they can take him seriously.”