By Maggie Haberman And Emily Schultheis
MANCHESTER, N.H. — With just 11 weeks left of this election, President Barack Obama is in a close race with Mitt Romney for the Granite State, whose four electoral votes are a key piece of the puzzle for both men in a campaign with a relatively small number of states truly in play.
For Obama supporters, the current state of play is a product of the president's numbers returning to their pre-2008 levels and falling in line with where Democrats tend to trend in the competitive state. Romney, Democrats note, is running in a state where he is well known, lives part time and has been watched from next door for a full decade as a former Massachusetts governor. They argue it raises questions about why the Republican — who has an all-economy, all-the-time message — has not yet closed the deal in this libertarian-minded state.
Instead, Obama and Romney are locked in a tight battle for a state that both need but is a jump ball in a race with tight electoral math.
The high stakes are evident from the amount of personal attention being lavished on the tiny state. Obama visited the state, with its cache of young, independent and libertarian voters. He was followed two days later by Romney, who has made more than 100 appearances here since the start of the 2012 cycle. The former Massachusetts governor has devoted intense amounts of time to his neighbor state, where he owns a home and has vacationed this summer and where he had initially planned to unveil his vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan.
"I think this race is different from any I've seen before, because we have never seen at this point in time the level of intensity from both sides and the number of visits from candidates and campaign surrogates as we're seeing" this year, said Jim Demers, a lobbyist who was among Obama's earliest 2008 supporters.
"I think people are amazed that a little state that has only four electoral votes is getting so much attention. I'm constantly reminded of the Al Gore-Bush race when, if Al Gore had put just a little more resources into New Hampshire, he would have been president," he added.
Most recent surveys have shown the race close with Obama maintaining a slight lead, a spread consistent with most Republican and Democratic polls over the past month, strategists said — although some private polling has shown Romney ahead.
The state is also in the unusual position of having a competitive gubernatorial election and two competitive congressional races.
"The rapidly closing polls in New Hampshire reflect two things — Governor Romney's keen focus on jobs and the economy, which stand in stark contrast to the president's negative campaign, and the work of a motivated, well-organized ground game," said Jim Merrill, Romney's chief strategist in the state.
"Last month, New Hampshire lost over 2,000 jobs, and our unemployment rate jumped. We've done better than most states as we ride out the Obama economy, but even here, our voters, who are typically more focused on fiscal and economic issues, are anxious and concerned for our country's future."
Overall, New Hampshire is not suffering the same level of economic hardship as some other states — the state's unemployment rate, 5.4 percent, is well below the national average, although it has ticked up from earlier in the year. But the state's voters — fiscally conservative and socially libertarian — are focused on the direction of the country.
All the questions both Romney and Ryan faced at a recent town hall in Manchester, the ticket's first in the state, were focused on major issues, like the war in Afghanistan, student loans and tax hikes.
Romney referred to a no-tax pledge he signed during the primaries, and he got a round of applause.
The 9.6 percent margin of victory Obama enjoyed over McCain in 2008 was unusual in a state that traditionally has been a battleground and saw much smaller margins in the previous two elections — Al Gore lost by less than 7,000 votes, while John Kerry beat George W. Bush by fewer than 2 percentage points here. How the Ryan pick ends up playing for Romney remains an open question.
McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, was not considered a help in New Hampshire, where the Arizona senator won the primary in 2000 and had retained popularity.
Kathy Sullivan, former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, highlighted three reasons she thinks Obama retains a slight edge here.
"Romney's not a good candidate; New Hampshire has become a more moderate state; … and three, I think the Obama ground game has just been in place with so many people on the ground here, that's making a real difference."
Sullivan also argued that Ryan trends too far to the right for New Hampshire's more centrist voters.
Ray Buckley, chairman of the state Democratic Party, agreed, saying: "Certainly, Paul Ryan did not help [Romney] communicate the kind of message that the independents in New Hampshire who decide elections here want to hear. We're not a radical state, far right or far left, and when you put somebody on the ticket like Paul Ryan."
Buckley added, "New Hampshire is 12 percent retirees. A lot of folks from around the Northeast move to New Hampshire, and I think in a close election, this is the sort of issue that could make a difference."
Rich Killion, a New Hampshire GOP strategist who worked for Romney's 2008 campaign, made that point directly: "New Hampshire is an absolute coin flip at the moment with recent University of New Hampshire polling showing the race a 3-point advantage by Obama. Given the weight and the length of the unprecedented, undaunted and unrelenting negative attack ads by President Obama, Gov. Romney is faring well to be in heads-up battle."
But Buckley made the same case about facing an onslaught of attacks and insisted the president has been outspent dramatically.
Saint Anselm College political science expert Dante Scala agreed with those who said the state never really moved in dramatic fashion toward Obama as a permanent shift.
"It's a battleground state; it's a bellwether state for the nation; it's got a slight Democratic lean to it but nothing that a strong national performance by Romney couldn't overcome," Scala said.
"So in other words, if it were a 50-50 national election in November, then I think Obama would probably edge out Romney here. And that's kind of remarkable in the sense that there have been some serious swings in the midterm elections."
Like almost everything else about this election, the two candidates have had similar, if not identical struggles. Obama struggled in New Hampshire, Scala noted, throughout his first term, performing better when the economy did a bit better, while Romney, despite his geographic advantages, isn't doing much better than a generic Republican.
That leaves Ryan as the wild card.
"Ryan is a social conservative as well, but his reputation is really in budget matters. [That] tends to be attractive to New Hampshire conservatives," Scala said. "Maybe adding Ryan to the ticket will help Romney a bit among base voters here. Among independents and so forth, that's a different story — if you're truly an independent voter here in New Hampshire, you know very little about Paul Ryan."