WINDHAM, N.H. — When this town's Republican activists walked into the local library auditorium one evening recently, they were greeted by a huge poster urging them to "participate in your freedom" and reminding them that "America has a date with liberty."
The poster touted GOP presidential candidate Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, but it could have been a pitch for almost any of the Republican 2012 White House hopefuls. Because the path to many a Republican voter's heart this year is to pledge fervent allegiance to the Constitution — often specifically to the "states rights" guarantee of the 10th Amendment — and to vow to uphold personal freedom.
The strategy of playing to this sentiment, closely linked to the tea party grassroots conservative movement, also comes with a risk. While wooing conservative true believers could help Republican candidates in the early primary and caucus states such as Iowa and South Carolina, it's less likely to mean victory in New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the nation's first primary. Here such talk could very well alienate the independent voters who are crucial to victory in this New England state.
"I don't think majority opinion goes as far as some of the tea party people go," said Travis Blais, Windham Republican chairman.
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Yet most GOP presidential candidates are eager to proclaim tea party-like sentiments.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum declared at last week's GOP debate: "I love it when people hold up this Constitution and say we have to live by what our founders laid out for the country."
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann held "constitutional classes" for fellow House members earlier this year, including one featuring conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty contends that President Barack Obama "would have us believe that traditional marriage laws are unconstitutional."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, under conservative fire for signing into his state's law a mandate for near-universal health-care coverage, stresses the importance of states' rights. Health care changes, he says, are up to each individual state.
And so on.
The growing GOP emphasis of focusing on the Constitution's "original intent" goes further than the tea party movement that helped elect dozens of Republicans to Congress last year. "There's a deeper understanding of the Constitution now," explained Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who's advising Bachmann.
The trigger is the 2010 federal health care law, which requires nearly everyone to have coverage by 2014. Conservatives view this as a "last straw" unconstitutional intrusion by big government into individual liberties. There are 27 states seeking to overturn the law; the case is pending in a federal appellate court.
In many cases, the movement's concern about abridgement of freedom goes further, pushed by New Hampshire groups such as We The People ("dedicated to a rebirth of democracy all across America") or the Granite State Patriots. Their ranks include people of all ages, professional and blue-collar, wealthy and lower income, men and women.
These people see taxes paying for wasteful or unnecessary government programs. Tax cuts, they say, would allow consumers and business to use their money as they see fit, which should mean more spending and jobs.
Some want Social Security and Medicare cut back, saying the Constitution never intended for the government to guarantee everyone an income or a certain level of health coverage. Or they want environmental regulations diluted.
"The Constitution was an imperfect document. We don't want to go back to the Constitution we had," said State Sen. Jim Forsythe of Strafford, who is New Hampshire chairman for Texas Rep. Ron Paul's presidential campaign. "But we should obey the original intention of the Constitution."
"Most people want government off their back," said Max Abramson, a merchant mariner from Seabrook.
While the movement's backers agree with that broad philosophical principle, there's little consensus on how to implement their worldview.
"We had a number of splits in the movement, because people talked in very general germs, and that was great, until we started to talk specifics," said Judson Phillips, founder of the Tea Party Nation, based in Nashville, Tenn. "I don't know if you'll be able to get a good definition of what people mean" when the say they want more loyalty to the Constitution.
Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, notes that one reason for Romney's popularity in New Hampshire is a feeling that he shares the kind of common sense, moderate views of many New England residents.
That broad appeal was evident in the April 15 to 26 Granite State Poll. The center found that if the election were held then, Romney would beat President Barack Obama among independents by 49 percent to 31 percent and would prevail against him among Republicans by 93 percent to 1 percent. He got 41 percent support from moderates, but also 93 percent from tea party supporters.
Any Republican would need that kind of broad support to win the general election in November 2012, but the crowd of about 50 in Windham last week illustrated how difficult that could be. Johnson was the latest in a series of speakers at the library in this wealthy town of 15,000. "Government has a role to protect us from individuals who do us harm," he said, "but let us make the decisions only individuals can make."
Reaction was mixed.
It's important to remember, said state Rep. Donna Mauro, "What's triggering this movement is 100 years of progressives being in power and trying to wipe out American constitutionalism."
But veteran Windham activist Margaret Crisler calmly explained why such logic was flawed.
"They want to shrink government, and I don't disagree," she said. "But where do you start? You want to shrink the Food and Drug Administration and go back to the days of rotten food and bad medicine?"
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