CONCORD, N.H. — Mitt Romney launched his last campaign for president at a New Hampshire farm, relied upon a New Hampshire victory to fuel his strategy to win the nomination and even posed the photos of his last family Christmas card on the shores of a New Hampshire lake where he still owns a home.
But whatever home-field advantage the Republican Party's 2012 nominee might have in New Hampshire is fading as the campaign begins in earnest, as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other potential GOP candidates for president seek support among establishment-minded donors, elected officials and voters in the nation's first primary state.
"There is not a clear frontrunner in this race," said New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman and former Romney backer Jennifer Horn. "It's a new cycle, it's a new slate of candidates, and he's going to have to work really hard to earn the votes one by one — just like everyone else."
And without a win in New Hampshire, Romney faces a much tougher path to claim the GOP's presidential nomination for the second straight election.
"Because he's run twice, because he does have a residence in New Hampshire, because he does spend a lot of time in New Hampshire, from a strategic standpoint, it does become increasingly important for him to win New Hampshire," said the state's only Republican congressman, Frank Guinta.
Guinta spoke with Bush last week for 20 minutes, but has yet to hear from Romney — and he isn't alone. Bush began courting Republican leaders in the state by phone last week, his first formal movement in New Hampshire, and he is planning a trip there soon.
Bush and Romney huddled privately in Utah on Thursday, a friendly meeting aides said was planned before Romney re-entered the 2016 discussion. "I admire him a lot," Bush told KUTV as he arrived at the Salt Lake City airport. "He's a great American."
Advisers for both men downplay suggestions of bad blood, but there is little doubt they would rely on the same group of supporters to win in New Hampshire and elsewhere. Bush has also recently reached out to donors in Massachusetts, where Romney served as governor, and Utah, where Romney now resides, raising money on what's unquestionably the 2012 nominee's home turf.
Bush "knows what it takes to run in New Hampshire," said Joel Maiola, a veteran Republican operative who led New Hampshire efforts for former President George W. Bush in 2000 and supported Romney in 2012. He said Jeb Bush would enter a New Hampshire race with both the benefit of name recognition and his brother's and father's previous campaigns in the state.
"That's a learning experience that Jeb Bush remembers," Maiola said.
New Hampshire has long embraced fiscally-focused Republicans over the social conservatives who typically fare well in Iowa and South Carolina, two of the states that, along with New Hampshire and Nevada, hold the first four votes at the start of the primary season.
Romney would join a field likely to include several Republicans who fit that mold, including Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who on Thursday announced plans to visit the state for the first time in March.
"I continue to think that Chris Christie really is in that ideological sweet spot of the New Hampshire primary electorate," said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state GOP. "I think Jeb Bush is, too, and Romney, by virtue of his past performance, clearly is as well."
Should any of those three finish in third place, Cullen said, they would lose "the game of musical chairs early in the process and there might not be room for them to go on."
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has already begun hiring staff in New Hampshire, also has natural advantages in a state with some libertarian leanings. In an interview with The Associated Press, Paul said "there's probably a limit" to how many times Romney can depend on New Hampshire's voters to enthusiastically embrace his candidacy.
"I think he and Bush will split a lot of the moderate vote," Paul said. "And so, I think that in the end, it'll be a brand new game."
While Paul noted Romney is likely have enough money and campaign infrastructure to fight deep into the primary calendar, he suggested — as did Cullen and several Republican operatives — that Romney needs to win early to survive politically.
"He'd be done for if he doesn't win one of the first four (states)," Paul said.
While Romney appears unable to bank that his ties to the state will yield an easy win in New Hampshire, that's not to say there isn't lingering goodwill for the candidate who finished a strong second in 2008 and won the 2012 primary.
Said Beverly Bruce, New Hampshire finance director for Romney's 2012 campaign: "There are an awful lot of us that have been wishing and hoping. A lot of people are waiting in the wings."
Peoples reported in Washington. Associated Press writer Michelle Price in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.