MASSACHUSETTS READERS of the Sunday Globe may have choked on their coffee when they came across this finding in our new poll of New Hampshire: Granite State Republicans see Mitt Romney as the most trustworthy of the GOP candidates.
Certainly anyone who watched Romney retrofit his positions to run for president would find that a tad curious. Frankly, I might not have believed it either - had I not spent last Friday evening at an event in Hudson, listening to Romney and interviewing voters about him.
On the stump, the Mittster shines like a diamond . . . ah, make that a cubic zirconia. Why, if one hadn't seen him run for the US Senate and Bay State governor as a Bill Weld Republican, he might seem both convincing and sincere in his recently adopted role as Reagan conservative.
What's more, voters I talked to didn't particularly care that Romney has done some serious flip-flopping.
"Don't they all?" said Loraine Battey of Hudson, who is undecided. "They say what people want to hear."
"They all lie," added Fred Taylor, a Hudson resident and Romney backer.
That high tolerance for Romney's ideological acrobatics could complicate things for Rudy Giuliani, who has come to think he can beat Romney in New Hampshire. As Giuliani's camp sees it, their candidate can survive losses in the early states because of his strength in Florida, on Jan. 29, and in the profusion of Feb. 5 states.
Still, they would like to dispatch Romney by defeating him in New Hampshire.
Paul Cellucci, a senior Giuliani adviser, puts it this way: "We are fighting to win in New Hampshire. They have to win in New Hampshire." Further evidence of Giuliani's push: The campaign has just gone on television with an ad targeted to Granite State voters, stressing Giuliani's achievements as mayor of New York City.
Certainly Giuliani's success in deworming the Big Apple compares favorably with what Romney accomplished in his single term as Massachusetts CEO.
Still, part of the Giuliani camp calculation also seems to be that New Hampshire voters will come to see Romney as a political poseur. Look at Romney's latest television ad, which paints him as a tried-and-true tough guy on illegal immigration, Giuliani's team snorts.
Several organizations that truth-check political ads have thrown a red flag about that spot.
"Misleading," declares FactCheck.org. "His ad misleads," concurs a McClatchy Newspapers adwatch.
And yet, l wouldn't count on the weight of flip-flops and misleading claims sinking Romney - not unless one of his rivals drives the point home with a paid-media critique, that is.
That may happen. Like Romney, Senator John McCain of Arizona needs a New Hampshire win. Thus he, like Giuliani, could benefit from having Romney's flip-flops fully aired.
But any such offensive will probably come only after a prolonged waiting game. Why? Because of the well-documented risk of attacking a rival in a multicandidate field: Another aspirant is usually the beneficiary.
For its part, the Romney campaign doubts that, after a president as polarizing as George W. Bush, Republicans will want a nominee as combative as Giuliani.
"Even people who like the president are tired of his style," says one senior Romney adviser. "They are looking for somebody who is going to be more of a consensus builder and less abrasive."
Further, the Romney camp thinks the indictment of close Giuliani associate Bernard Kerik will prove a heavy burden for a candidate who has made electability his campaign calling card.
Romney's team is convinced that if their man can win in Iowa and New Hampshire - and Michigan, if that state keeps an early primary - South Carolina will fall into place. And then Giuliani's lead in Florida and the Feb. 5 states will melt like wax.
Iowa, where Mike Huckabee is on the move, further complicates the calculus. Romney's adviser claims his camp wouldn't mind seeing the former Arkansas governor finish second there, reasoning that, compared with Giuliani, Fred Thompson or McCain, he has the least chance of capitalizing on the bounce.
However, should Huckabee upend Romney in Iowa, or even finish a close second, he would send Romney stumbling, rather than striding, toward New Hampshire. That helps explain why Romney has been using immigration as a cudgel against Huckabee in Iowa.
So which scenario is most likely to come true?
Alas, the crystal ball grows cloudy. But here's my prediction: We'll know on Feb. 6.
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.