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N.H. Republicans Pick Romney and Tea Party Leader

 New Hampshire, as it likes to do, sent an early message to the nation Saturday.

A group of nearly 500 local Republican activists endorsed a tea party favorite to lead the state GOP while overwhelmingly supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Granite State’s first straw poll of the 2012 presidential primary season.

The votes came during the Republican State Committee’s annual meeting in Derry, roughly one year before local voters will help guide the Republican presidential nomination in the nation’s first primary contest. And while the straw poll was hardly scientific — it included some public figures who have ruled out running for president — New Hampshire Republicans sent a resounding message that the field is wide open after Romney, a former neighboring governor who owns property in the Granite State.

Romney earned 35 percent of votes cast, with the second-place finisher, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, earning just 11 percent.

The chairman’s race was far closer, however, and was largely the focus of Saturday’s meeting. Tea party-backed Dover businessman Jack Kimball earned 222 votes, with 199 going to Juliana Bergeron, the handpicked successor of outgoing Chairman John Sununu.

Kimball chairs the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC and posted an introductory on the PAC’s website saying “‘Don’t tread on us’, we intend to make the Eagle of Liberty soar, once again” and warning of the rise of President Barack Obama’s “socialist agenda.”

Sununu, who publicly endorsed Bergeron in recent weeks, had warned against a potentially divisive tea party leader who could create a hostile environment for moderates.

“We as a party need to provide an environment that is comfortable for all candidates to come and participate,” said Sununu, a former White House chief of staff, told the Associated Press. “The worst thing for the New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary is for people to feel this is not a place where they want to participate.”

While no Republicans have formally entered the presidential race yet, the straw poll offered an early sampling of activists’ leanings on prospective candidates.

Respondents were offered 20 names of potential candidates, including some who have already taken themselves out of the running for the White House — such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — and others who have only vaguely hinted at the possibility, such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and businessman and television celebrity Donald Trump.

After Romney’s 35 percent and Paul’s 11 percent, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty took 8 percent, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin received 7 percent and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, won 5 percent.

Trump earned 1 percent.

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