MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) – After a late-night flight from Iowa, Mitt Romney stepped off the airplane here Friday with a re-tooled stump speech in his back pocket, and hope that more than a year’s worth of organizing would help deliver him a much-needed victory in the Granite State.
Romney was bruised from a stunning loss in the Hawkeye State - territory where he invested heavily - and a strategy that was supposed to slingshot him through the early primary states on the way to winning the Republican presidential nomination. But a late surge by Mike Huckabee, a relatively unknown former Arkansas governor, prevented Romney from winning the Iowa caucuses.
In New Hampshire, he arguably faces a tougher foe: an established political figure with a maverick reputation whose campaign is rebounding at just about the right time – and John McCain happens to be the only candidate in the race who’s already won the Granite State’s presidential primary once before (in 2000).
Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, is now openly talking about change – a line that has been all but branded this cycle by Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. But Romney advisors argue that this message is not new for the former governor – it is a point he has been talking about since early spring.
“You are all catching up with us,” Ron Kaufman, one of Romney's senior advisers, said in an interview with CNN.
Kaufman added, “This election is about change.”
Specifically, Romney is painting McCain as a Washington insider, even though the Arizona senator has not been embraced by the GOP’s D.C. establishment.
"We are focusing like a laser on the fact that if you want change in Washington, the best way to do that is with outsiders, and not with people that have been part of the Washington culture like John McCain," Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said Saturday.
Romney, campaigning in recent days with a large blue sign reading "Washington is Broken," has taken a more aggressive posture on the stump against McCain than he did against Huckabee in Iowa.
Campaign stop after campaign stop, Romney has hammered McCain for four straight days on immigration policy, and his lack of early support for the Bush tax cuts. He even ventured to challenge the Arizona senator on one of his long-time priorities: cutting pork-barrel spending.
The Romney campaign has attempted to paint McCain as too much of an old hand to defeat the fresh optimism of Obama, whom Romney said will likely be the Democratic nominee.
"Republicans are going to have to say, ‘Who does a better job against Barack Obama?’" said Kaufman. "Someone from the Senate, or someone from the outside? And that’s a good thing for us."
McCain shot back at Romney's criticisms during the ABC/WMUR/Facebook Republican debate Saturday, mocking the former governor as "the candidate of change," a reference to his changed positions on issues like abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
In the face of McCain's almost improbable New Hampshire comeback, Romney has saturated TV airwaves and mailboxes with contrast ads, and purchased two minutes of precious airtime on Monday night with his "closing argument" spot.
Romney's strategy, however, has been handicapped by the truncated early primary calendar.
"There's not a lot of time left, and given an extra couple of weeks, that message could be brought home even more effectively," Romney told reporters Monday in Stratham, noting that the quick turnaround between Iowa and New Hampshire was one reason he ran attack ads against McCain.
Heading into primary day, Romney trails McCain by five points among likely Republican voters in the state, according to a CNN/WMUR poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire.
He needs a win, but his candidacy will not face a fatal blow if he comes in second to McCain. The former governor is also a successful businessman and has already shown a willingness to pour millions of his personal fortune into the race. And no matter what happens Tuesday night, Romney’s next priority will be his birth state of Michigan.
–CNN Political Producer Peter Hamby