As Mitt Leaves New England, New England Leaves Him

rubin mitt1h As Mitt Leaves New England, New England Leaves HimMitt Romney’s presidential campaign is a wonderful illustration of the law of unintended consequences.

Mr. Romney ran for Massachusetts governor in 2002 as a socially liberal businessman and then governed as a moderate reformer. Until his run for the presidency, his political career was most noteworthy for his efforts to bring government-mandated universal health care to his state.

But he, or his advisers, subsequently became convinced his was not the profile of a G.O.P. presidential nominee. Policy shifts promptly ensued. He announced he was staunchly pro-life, placed himself in opposition to Plan B contraception and stem cell research and led the charge to ban gay marriage.

For a time, this seemed to work. He garnered an award for his pro-life advocacy, signed an influential list of conservative activists to his campaign and, with the help of a significant cash outlay, captured the Ames straw polls, where social conservatives vote in large numbers.

Then New Hampshire voters started paying attention. Mr. Romney’s early lead in state polls there has been whittled away—a recent CNN/WMUR survey of likely primary voters showed Rudy Giuliani having pulled into a statistical dead heat—forcing the Romney campaign to scramble into expectations-lowering mode by suggesting that New Hampshire is not critical to their game plan after all.

What went wrong? There are always technical explanations when poll numbers decline, having to do with advertising time and number of visits and weak debate performances.

But it is possible that something more fundamental is at play here. New Hampshire is the state of “live free or die,” where religious conservatives do not dominate the G.O.P. electorate and libertarianism has a long tradition. So while Mr. Romney was affecting his socially conservative, anti-gay-marriage rebirth with an eye toward Iowa, Republicans in New Hampshire have watched approvingly as Mr. Giuliani (and John McCain, for that matter) pounded the lectern about taxes and security.

What’s more, New Hampshire is a state heavily influenced by the Massachusetts media market, and which is overrun by transplants from Massachusetts. While Iowa has only ever known the religious conservative Mitt Romney, the residents of New Hampshire will be keenly aware of the stark changes Mr. Romney has undergone in order to accommodate his new political goals.

Now Mr. Romney faces a dilemma. He can stick to his game plan and risk losing on his home turf, or he can remind voters of the things that got him elected in Massachusetts—his résumé, his managerial skills and his reform agenda—in hopes of regaining lost ground in New Hampshire and expanding his appeal in Florida and the far-flung Super Tuesday states.

With Fred Thompson and others nipping at his heels, challenging his social-conservative credentials and visiting Iowa on a daily basis, he is likely to choose the former.

And so the transformation that started Mr. Romney’s presidential run may be his undoing, depriving him of credibility in a state he cannot afford to lose. Of all the candidates, this successful businessman and marketing guru should have known how easy it is to lose your “brand identity,” and how difficult it is to get it back.