MANCHESTER — Former Gov. John H. Sununu on Monday will throw his considerable political influence behind Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“I'm viewed as a good, solid conservative Republican and I'm supporting a good, solid conservative Republican,” Sununu said in disclosing his long-awaited endorsement.
In exclusive interview, Sununu said he narrowed his choice to Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but was won over by what he views as Romney's conservative approach to pressing domestic and national security issues.
He said the final component that persuaded him to back Romney was the former Massachusetts governor's early October foreign policy speech at The Citadel in South Carolina.
“That showed me that he understands that the principal role of the President of the United States is the security of the country and participating in trying to stabilize the world,” Sununu said.
Sununu, 72, will be named chairman of the Romney campaign's national steering committee and will on hand Monday morning when Romney files his candidacy in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary at the New Hampshire State House and then attends a campaign rally there.
While the importance of big political endorsements are subject to speculation in independent-minded New Hampshire, Sununu's backing is viewed as a plus not only locally, but also nationally. A Boston newspaper recently went so far as to term Sununu “the Holy Grail” of New Hampshire endorsements.
Former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg backed Romney two weeks ago. The candidate also has the support of seven state senators and 35 New Hampshire House members.
Romney, thanking Sununu for his support, called him “one of the most respected public servants in New Hampshire” with “Granite State values” of individualism and fiscal responsibility.
Sununu is a former three-term governor and a former White House chief of staff. In 2009, he came out of political retirement to chair the New Hampshire Republican Party during a 2010 cycle election when it kept a U.S. Senate seat, took both U.S. House seats, won all five Executive Council seats and won super-majorities in the New Hampshire House and Senate.
While critics try to portray Romney as a moderate Republican, Sununu called him “truly a conservative. He's committed to cutting spending and taxes, and he's committed to some issues that I really care about.”
Sununu noted that Romney kept Massachusetts out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), “believes in local control of education and understands the importance of maintaining the integrity of our national borders.”
He also said Romney has sufficiently answered criticisms of the Massachusetts health care plan he signed into law, which imposed an individual mandate and has been portrayed by Romney opponents as a forerunner to President Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Sununu said Romney did well with the plan considering the “constraints” of having a Democratic-controlled Legislature. He said the Romney plan was “built on” an idea put forward by the Heritage Foundation, which Sununu said was the “gold standard” for conservative thinking.
“His firm commitment to repealing ‘Obamacare' is a very important part of his agenda,” Sununu said.
Sununu stayed neutral in the 2008 primary, when Romney lost the New Hampshire primary to John McCain. In 1988, as governor, he backed George H.W. Bush and was later named Bush's White House chief of staff. In 2000, he backed Dan Quayle's brief campaign and then George W. Bush. He did not endorse anyone in 1996, and there was no GOP primary contest in 2004.
Sununu has long said he was partial to backing a governor because he feels they have more hands-on executive experience than a legislator has.
“I started looking at a handful, and as the process went on, it narrowed down” to Romney and Perry.
Long critical of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Sununu, in the interview, quipped that he wanted to back “a conservative Republican governor” and so excluded Huntsman.
Sununu had strong compliments for Perry.
“He's a good friend,” Sununu said of the Texas governor. “He's a good Republican and a very good governor and, frankly, would make a good President just as Mitt Romney would make a good President. I don't have any negative feelings toward him at all.”
Romney, through his former political action committees, donated $40,000 to the New Hampshire Republican Party while Sununu was chairman and thousands more to state Republican candidates.
Sununu said Romney is a supporter of the leadoff primary even though he did not join the boycott of Nevada in the recent caucus-primary date dispute. Sununu was involved in the date issue, he said, and although he is known for being confrontational at times, he believes “quiet cooperation” was a better approach in this case.
The boycott, he said, “if anything, made it harder to maintain the four-state cooperation.”
Sununu has friends and former staffers working on the campaigns of the two other governors who are running.
David Carney and Paul Collins, who began their long political careers as top staffers in Sununu's governor's office, are top national and state staffers for Perry and Huntsman, respectively.
Collins is also the former chief of staff for Sununu's son, former U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu, who has yet to endorse in the primary.
Another of Sununu's sons, Chris Sununu, a freshman executive councilor, backed Romney several weeks ago.