NASHUA, N.H. — Mitt Romney's Republican presidential campaign steamed forward this weekend, scoring what is one of New Hampshire's most significant political endorsements and fueling a growing sense of inevitability surrounding the former Massachusetts governor's White House bid.
A beaming Romney stood shoulder-to-shoulder with New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte Sunday afternoon, several hours after the popular Republican senator's decision became public.
"There's one person in this field who is prepared to lead the United States of America and that is Mitt Romney," Ayotte told cheering supporters gathered on the city hall steps. "And most importantly, there is one person who I know will ensure that Barack Obama is a one-term president and that is Mitt Romney."
The freshman senator is the latest high-profile addition to an organization that already included Granite State Republican heavyweights like former Sen. Judd Gregg and former Gov. John H. Sununu. But even in a world where the impact of endorsements is often exaggerated, Ayotte's public support is a significant step forward for Romney in New Hampshire. It's led prominent Republicans to suggest that Romney — who already enjoys tremendous advantages in the first-in-the-nation primary state — has become so strong here that the real contest on Jan. 10 will be for second place.
"It's certainly going to push him even further ahead. I think this is a very big deal," said Jennifer Horn, a leading Granite State conservative who isn't affiliated with any campaign. "I think it would take something fairly cataclysmic for someone else to come in first in New Hampshire at this point."
Romney hasn't begun to run television advertising yet. Instead, he's been steadily raising money and adding campaign muscle as his Republican opponents struggle to overcome weaknesses. Romney is expected to join the television ad war soon, however.
His campaign had a video crew following the former governor this weekend to gather footage for his first advertisement. He wouldn't share any details when asked about timing.
"As we get closer we will go up on the air. This is a calculation of how much money we have to spend and when is the right time to go up," Romney told reporters following a Saturday night campaign stop in Peterborough. "But I wouldn't expect to be waiting weeks and weeks. It's got to come relatively soon, and it'll happen in the early primary states."
Republican operatives here note that Ayotte is perhaps the most popular politician in the state, having won a resounding victory just one year ago. She brings a network of roughly 3,000 volunteers and 7,000 donors, according to Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire member of the Republican National Committee.
"I don't think you can say Governor Romney has it wrapped up because that last month will be intense and Iowa will have some impact," Duprey said. "But this gives him tremendous campaign muscle."
Like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's endorsement earlier in the fall, Ayotte's support also offers a bridge to more conservative voters, who have been reluctant to endorse a candidate with a mixed history on some social issues. Romney has struggled to win over that voting bloc in New Hampshire and elsewhere, although some have begun to reluctantly embrace his candidacy in light of repeated stumbles by his rivals.
"Kelly is not an ivory tower establishment-type elected official," Horn said. "She brings a tremendous amount of credibility among grassroots conservative votes."
And with Romney looking on, Ayotte, along with her husband, promised to play an active role in Romney's campaign.
"Joe and I will be doing everything we can to make sure Mitt Romney is the next president of the United States," she said. "We cannot take four more years of this president."