RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Most of the Republican presidential candidates are focusing their campaign efforts on Iowa at the moment; the first-in-the-nation caucuses there are less than two weeks away.
But not former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He's hundreds of miles away from Iowa, in New Hampshire. And today he's setting off on a three-day tour of the state, eyeing an early primary win.
He's traveling in a blue and white bus with the slogan Believe in America stretched across the bottom of it, stopping for the kind of meet and greet that's a staple of New Hampshire primaries. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Manchester.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: To say that Mitt Romney has practically lived in New Hampshire for the last four years is an understatement. He owns a house here, and he has put in plenty of face time since he lost to John McCain in 2008. So much so that it's hard to believe any New Hampshire voters remain undecided about Romney.
Yet they are easy to find. Shannon McGinley did not vote for Romney the last time around and this time, she might.
SHANNON MCGINLEY: It's not the same crowd that ran four years ago, so yeah. There's a different set of rules, and the culture that we live in has changed as well; different issues related to economics that weren't as much of an issue four years ago.
SHAPIRO: William Langthram comes at his indecision from the opposite direction. Having supported Romney four years ago, this time he's not sure. It's down to Romney or Gingrich.
WILLIAM LANGTHRAM: My particular issue with Mitt is understanding what kind of strength he will bring to the national, international stage, and his handling of the economic situation right now. And with Speaker Gingrich, it's more about some of his political past and understanding what he can shed and what he will bring new.
SHAPIRO: These were just a couple of the people who braved the cold to hear Romney speak at the Bedford Town Hall last night. It was a capacity crowd. The fire marshal told folks they weren't allowed to stand in the aisles. A little after 6, Romney and his wife walked out onto a platform in the center of the hall. He wore an open-collared shirt, a blazer and jeans. The candidate did his best to win over the fence-sitters - not by drawing a contrast between himself and the other Republicans, but by distinguishing himself from President Obama.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MITT ROMNEY: We are Americans, and we will not surrender our dreams to the failures of this president. We're bigger than the misguided policies and weak leadership of one man.
SHAPIRO: After about 15 minutes of prepared remarks from a teleprompter, Romney spoke more casually, off-the-cuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
ROMNEY: Your primary's coming up real soon, and I'd like to win.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
SHAPIRO: Only then did he acknowledge his Republican rivals, and he did not mention any of them by name.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
ROMNEY: And there are a lot of good people running for president on our side of the aisle. And I think any one of them would be better than the current president. I just think I'm in the best position to post up against a president who's had no experience in the private sector, and doesn't know how the economy works. I do.
SHAPIRO: That magnanimous tone is very different from the ads that Romney's supporters have funded in early voting states. This one comes from the super PAC called Restore Our Future.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know what makes Barack Obama happy? Newt Gingrich's baggage. Newt has more baggage than the airlines.
SHAPIRO: The no-holds-barred approach reflects the fact that New Hampshire is a must-win state for Romney, says political scientist Andy Smith of the University of New Hampshire.
ANDY SMITH: Because he's from a neighboring state, because he finished here in second place in 2008, he's been the prohibitive front-runner in New Hampshire. And if he does not meet the expectations of the national press - which is, to win fairly convincingly here - it would be as good as a loss. And that would make it almost impossible for him to win the nomination.
SHAPIRO: And, Smith says, Romney cannot assume that these voters are in the bag.
SMITH: Voters in New Hampshire don't make up their minds who they're going to vote for until the very end of the campaign. In 2008, we saw that on both the Republican and Democratic side - that half of the voters had not made up their minds two days before the election. So candidates cannot take it for granted that they are going to win, even if you have a convincing lead in the polls.
SHAPIRO: After Romney's speech last night, I returned to the undecided voter, William Langthram. He told me he liked what he heard.
LANGTHRAM: I thought he came across confident, poised, and with some strength.
SHAPIRO: But he hasn't totally won your vote yet?
LANGTHRAM: He's getting close.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LANGTHRAM: He is getting close.
SHAPIRO: Romney has just a few more weeks to seal the deal.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.