MANCHESTER, N.H. - There he was, a historic figure, big as life, trapped in the living room.

For two hours Wednesday night, anybody could approach former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and pitch a surefire plan for ending illegal immigration, ask about old fights with Bill Clinton, or comment on the rocky start to his Republican presidential campaign.

It was a house party hosted by tea-party favorite Ovide Lamontagne and attended by 200 grassroots conservatives shopping for a nominee, an important stop for GOP candidates trooping in recent weeks to New Hampshire, home of the nation's first primary.

They are taking their cases to small groups of the state's independent-minded voters, working to sign up leaders who can influence others in their social networks.

"This country is in real trouble - four more years of Obama would be a disaster," pushing the country further toward European socialist "decay," Gingrich told the activists.

For Gingrich, a two-day tour of New Hampshire was a chance to focus his campaign on issues instead of the firestorm over his calling the House Republicans' plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program "right-wing social engineering" that was "too big a leap." In addition, there was wall-to-wall news coverage of Gingrich's credit line of up to $500,000 with luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co.

"All candidates go through the pounding he has taken at some point," Lamontagne said. "I've seen a lot of them, and they tend to get wrapped around the axle. Newt, though, is standing in there fighting. I like that. You've got to admire him."

Of course, the praise did not constitute an endorsement. Lamontagne, a former GOP nominee for governor of New Hampshire who narrowly lost the 2010 Senate primary to the party establishment's choice, is weighing his options. He was a supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2008, but became a free agent when Romney declined to back him in the Senate race.

Many New Hampshire Republicans are likewise undecided, according to polls and interviews.

"In New Hampshire, you wait; it's a mistake to jump in with anyone right off the bat," said Bob Jursik, 45, a data analyst from Concord attending the house party. "The campaign is unsettled, and I think we're going to see more people getting in."

The assumption has been that Romney has the advantage here - he owns a vacation house on Lake Winnipesaukee and finished second in the 2008 primary - and that seven or eight other Republicans are vying to be the conservative alternative.

After all, Romney had more support among likely Republican primary voters - 33 percent - than the next four candidates combined in a poll for WMUR-TV and CNN released last week. The four are Rep. Ron Paul, Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who recently has mused aloud about running for president again.

But that same survey found that 87 percent of the likely GOP voters who responded were not definite in their choices.

Former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr., who was governor of Utah, is also weighing a run and drew good crowds on a recent five-day tour of New Hampshire.

After months of relative quiet, Sarah Palin is launching a bus tour Sunday of patriotic sites, including a visit to New Hampshire, rekindling speculation that she might jump into the race. Another tea-party idol, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, has said she will run. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Friday he would think about it some more.

Jursik is meeting as many candidates as he can, and he likes Bachmann and Howard Cain, a former pizza executive from Georgia, though he is concerned about how they would fare in a general election. He does not agree with some Republicans who are grumbling that the field is weak.

"That suggests there is a magical Republican out there who - poof! - can come out of the ground and win the presidency," Jursik said. "It doesn't exist. Every field has its pluses and minuses."

David Carney, the veteran New Hampshire consultant advising Gingrich, said the field should be settled by Labor Day. Even if others get in, it will be a wide-open fight, he said.

"I don't think there's anybody sitting there with all the cards: 'I'm in. I've won,' " said Carney, who was White House political director for President George H.W. Bush, and who ran Bob Dole's 1996 national campaign. "They're going to have to work hard for it," he said. "There will be no coronation in New Hampshire."

Perry "doesn't have a burning desire to be president," though he is listening to the encouragement, said Carney, who is the Texan's top political adviser. "He's going to think about it because that's human nature, but he hasn't changed his plans."

New Hampshire's primary is open - independents can and do participate - so the electorate can be broader than in Iowa, which goes first with its caucuses.

In 2008, caucus-day polling found that 60 percent of those who voted in Iowa's GOP caucuses described themselves as evangelical Christians. Twenty-three percent of those voting in the New Hampshire Republican primary in 2008 were evangelicals.

New Hampshire Republicans themselves are a diverse mix of frugal Yankee fiscal conservatives moderate on social issues, libertarians, and religious conservatives.

"I like to support a candidate if they're not self-serving and if they sing a song that's not out of tune. Republican or Democrat, I don't care," said George Mandragouras, 51, an independent who voted for Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2008 GOP primary and President Obama in the general election.

He spent his lunch hour Thursday at a town-hall meeting with Pawlenty at Cirtronics Corp. the employee-owned Milford electronics firm where he is chief financial officer.

Pawlenty impressed Mandragouras with his willingness to "tell the truth" about the need to change Social Security so richer seniors get fewer benefits than poor ones, and other fiscal issues. But he said slashing spending alone was not going to take care of the nation's fiscal problems and might even send the economy into another tailspin. "You can't cut your way out. You're going to have to raise taxes," Mandragouras said.

Bert Tenhave of Milford has signed on to Pawlenty's state steering committee. "Tim Pawlenty is a conservative who can win," Tenhave said. "He has the ability to attract conservative Democrats and independents, and that's who we're going to need."

Pundits have complained that Pawlenty is boring, but Tenhave sees a candidate with no baggage: "He has Christian convictions and good character."

Republican Ken Smith of Nashua took in a Gingrich appearance the other day - he, too, tries to see as many candidates as possible - but is undecided.

"They all sound about the same: Repeal Obamacare, create jobs, balance the budget," said Smith, 71, a retired engineer. "I'm looking for somebody who's middle-of-the-road and pragmatic, not too extreme one way or another, somebody who wants to get things done and bases decisions on facts."

Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/Big Tent