By STEVE PEOPLES
MANCHESTER, N.H. - It may be overrated, but the political endorsement race won't stop. In fact, it will only accelerate as voting in the GOP presidential contest nears.
Hoping to bolster credibility and build political muscle, Republican presidential contenders have jockeyed for months to woo governors and congressional lawmakers, state senators and county sheriffs, newspaper editorial boards and tea party activists. The game has been dominated so far by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who appears to have captured more endorsements than the rest of the field combined.
But Jeff Frost, like many Republicans in early voting states, isn't impressed. Frost, who is chairman of the Manchester Republican Committee, said New Hampshire voters don't much like being told which candidate to support.
"We're a stubborn bunch of horse traders," he said.
Indeed, candidates and voters alike suggest the impact of political endorsements is unclear at best. Any potential blowback, however, isn't enough to stop campaigns from trotting out new supporters as quickly as they can sign them up.
It didn't matter that the New Hampshire Union Leader has a spotty record of picking winners. Newt Gingrich claimed instant credibility after capturing its endorsement. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum proudly won over Iowa social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, while touring Iowa, recently dispatched his latest high-profile supporter, conservative businessman Steve Forbes, to New Hampshire.
In most cases, the campaigns shop their big-name backers to local reporters, arrange meetings with voters and use their names and voices in fundraising appeals. Some also offer an instant infrastructure to handle nuts-and-bolts political chores that have tripped up less-organized candidates. That was the case recently in Virginia, where leading Romney supporter Lt. Gov. Bill Boiling shared his political network to help collect thousands of signatures so Romney could qualify for the primary ballot. Gingrich and Perry failed to qualify.
There's also the buzz that comes with any endorsement, producing days or a few hours of positive media coverage that may inspire confidence among wavering supporters.
Republican candidate Jon Huntsman has struggled to attract big names but recently won the backing of three New Hampshire newspapers, including the capital city's Concord Monitor. His campaign blasted news of the endorsements to reporters.
But even Huntsman acknowledged their impact may be minimal come Election Day.
"It's recognition that you are a legitimate candidate and people think well of you," Huntsman said. "What it does in terms of bringing support around in real numbers that would be quantifiable, I don't have any way of measuring that. I just don't know if it matters at all at the end of the day. But anything that provides additional credibility is a good thing."
The people who endorse candidates are also freer to go negative. Romney supporter and former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu has repeatedly jabbed at Gingrich for "whining." Forbes did much the same thing in New Hampshire for Perry, suggesting that the Texas governor has more "soul" than Romney.
Forbes, once a presidential contender himself, is considered popular in New Hampshire. But a handful of public appearances and media interviews are unlikely to sway any voters, according to Phyllis Woods, one of New Hampshire's two members of the Republican National Committee.
"I think in New Hampshire, there are precious few people who will make their decision based on an endorsement," she said.
There are always exceptions.
Romney helped create an air of inevitability in the fall after earning the endorsement of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an outspoken conservative favorite. That was strengthened when Romney subsequently won over a tea party favorite, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Dave Roederer, an unaligned Republican who was John McCain's Iowa campaign chairman in 2008, said such high-profile endorsements are helpful.
"Iowa's not a big endorsement-type state, but the fact of the matter is that people will obviously stop and listen to somebody who's a big name like that," Roederer said of Christie and Haley. "It helps."
Santorum hopes people will notice rounds of lesser-known Iowa Republicans, from pastors and politicians alike, whom he's courted with some success in recent weeks. His top prize so far has been Vander Plaats, whose Family Leader organization worked to oust judges who helped usher in gay marriage in Iowa. The organization itself, however, declined to endorse.
In the endorsement race, which candidate gets the most is also a contest.
Romney's campaign says he's collected more than 1,900 endorsements, including conservative activists and current and former elected officials in all 50 states. The list includes four governors, 48 House members and 11 senators.
No one else comes close.