SALEM, N.H. — Who is Mitt Romney? And what does he believe?
The Republican presidential contender's rivals are raising these questions with increasing frequency ahead of Tuesday's New Hampshire presidential primary, seeking to exploit one of his biggest vulnerabilities: shifts on issues that have led to charges of political opportunism. They're also casting themselves as Republicans with rock-hard beliefs, pushing character issues to the forefront of a contest that until now had been dominated by the economy.
"You may not agree with me on every issue — and I suspect you don't — but what you'll know is that I agree with me on every issue," former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told voters in the Rockingham County Nursing Home this week. Voters, he said, want someone they can trust.
At a Dover community center, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, said he wouldn't pander or twist himself up "like a pretzel" to win votes. His wife, Mary Kaye, said, "He'd rather lose than be inauthentic." And former House speaker Newt Gingrich told voters in Littleton that he was "a real conservative who stands for solid values, essentially for New Hampshire values."
All were obvious efforts to contrast themselves with Romney.
In the primary's final days, the focus of the GOP nomination contest here has been all but centered on what critics contend is Romney's lack of a core set of beliefs.
He was tagged during his 2008 campaign as a candidate who shifted with the political wind because of his series of reversals or equivocations on a host of issues, abortion rights and gay rights among them. It didn't help matters that Romney, whose net worth exceeds $190 million, struggled to connect with average Americans. And it all added up to charges that Romney was less than genuine.
The criticism hasn't yet taken hold in this campaign. Several opponents tried throughout the year to assail him on that front but their attempts have fallen flat.
But, with Romney in a position of strength, they're going after the former Massachusetts governor anew — and sounding like Democrats — as they look to derail him in his adoptive state, where he comfortably leads in polls after a narrow Iowa victory.
More so than character, electability was a key factor in Romney's Iowa win.
Among Romney supporters, 61 percent reported that the quality that mattered most when selecting a candidate was, "can defeat Obama," according to entrance polls by The Associated Press and the networks. Another 23 percent said, "has the right experience," was most important, while 11 percent cited, "strong moral character," and only 2 percent said Romney "is a true conservative."
The opposite was true for Santorum who lost by 8 votes: 41 percent of his supporters said a "strong moral character," mattered most when selecting a candidate, followed closely by 38 percent who reported that they cared most that their candidate "is a true conservative."
New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne, who hasn't yet endorsed a presidential contender, called Romney's greatest political challenge convincing people that he's authentic.
"I told him that," Lamontagne said after Romney's town hall-style meeting at the Salem Boys and Girls Club this week, saying that "the allegations he changes his positions for political convenience" have undercut his efforts to prove to voters that he's genuine.
"He has just has to deal with that," Lamontagne said, adding: "He's been dealing with it fairly effectively, but it's not something that disappears overnight."
Conceding a problem, Romney aides have been deploying his large family to campaign events in hopes that they'll serve as a validator for Romney with voters who may question whether he has a core set of values. His wife, Ann, has campaigned alongside him for months. And more recently, he's relied upon his grown sons.
"Almost instantly it cuts through everything. There's a quality of, 'That happens in my house,' " said Romney's senior New Hampshire adviser Tom Rath, noting the family involvement has been "huge" in addressing the challenge. "People are choosing a president. He or she is the figure who's going to be the dominant political figure in their lives for four years; they're going to wake up with this person every single day as their president. They have to be comfortable with him."
Some New Hampshire primary voters agree.
"It's important to pick somebody who has that inner feeling, who has that emotion, and is genuinely concerned," Cindy Goucher, an undecided Republican-leaning independent, said while waiting to hear Romney in Salem this week. Romney, she said, "is very professional and very fine tuned. And that may come across as a little inauthentic."
"But I think he has a good heart and wants what's best for our country. But he could come down a notch -- a little more personable, a little more humanistic."
Diana Baker, 45, sat next to Goucher at the event, a Romney sticker on her jacket.
She said it was only natural for people to change their minds over time, and noted that she's enjoyed seeing Romney's family on the campaign trail.
"As a family woman, morals are a big deal to me. If he can commit to his family he can commit to anything," she said. "And I just love his wife."