WOLFEBORO, N.H. — At the edge of sparkling Lake Winnipesaukee, Robert Dolengewicz — “Hot Dog Bob,” as he is known here — was set up in his usual spot a couple of weeks ago between the town bandstand and its docks, not far from where the train began dropping off vacationers in the 1870s.
There was a line before noon for the former New Yorker’s hot dogs, which he imports from Queens and serves with mustard, ketchup and Vidalia onions while joking with regulars who have frequented his stand since he moved here 14 years ago.
Dolengewicz’s customers come from all over the world, but lately it’s the 2012 presidential candidates who have been drawing notice. Ron Paul, the physician and Texas congressman, pulled up recently (“I thought he was the chicken guy,” Dolengewicz says, “but then someone called him ‘doctor”’). Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman stopped by a few weeks ago and chatted for 15 minutes (“I to ld him, ‘Your wife just called; no hot dogs for you.’ “).
But Dolengewicz, a 55-year-old Republican, is still waiting to meet the man who could become Wolfeboro’s most famous resident: Mitt Romney.
New Hampshire’s primary is eight months away, but that hasn’t stopped locals from talking about what might become of Wolfeboro if it became the hometown of a president.
People here live close enough to Kennebunkport, Maine, to have watched that town boom — with what some see as unpleasant side effects like traffic and development — in part because of tourists curious about the vacation retreat of President George H.W. Bush. They also caught a glimpse of life with enhanced security when French President Nicolas Sarkozy vacationed here a few years ago.
“I think people are really paranoid about security, Secret Service,” said Gray Tyler, a house painter who ended up in Wolfeboro by way of Venice Beach and London.
But many of the business owners here, including Hot Dog Bob, say a successful Romney run could bring a needed boost after the recession.
Like many here in Wolfeboro, Dolengewicz came here to raise his children in a beautiful place where they could safely ride their bikes. He started thinking about leaving Queens when “they started putting the metal detectors in the schools over there. You wondered if you sent your kids out if they’re going to come home. Up here you don’t have to worry.”
He and his wife, now Wolfeboro’s school lunch lady, were drawn by the lake’s year-round offerings. In addition to skiing, snowmobiling and ice boating, there’s an ice fishing tournament in nearby Alden Bay, where small planes are allowed to land on the frozen lake. The Fourth of July parade includes the “Lawn Chair Brigade,” a group of men who wield lawn chairs like batons in an elabor ate routine.
Residents are drawn by an intimacy that keeps generations of families coming back. Ellaine Goodall, 74, calls Wolfeboro “quintessential small-town America: beautiful lakes that are clear and clean; the mountains; the mountain air.”
It’s been 40 years since Goodall moved to Wolfeboro, which swells from a population of about 6,000 to more than 30,000 in the summer. “I wanted my children, when they were grown, to be able to come home — home being a place where they could still walk up and down the street and know people.”
Everyone, for example, knows where the Romneys live, even though the house is set back from the road in the white pines, visible only from the lake. It’s an enviable spot with views of the Belknap Mountains; sunsets almost year-round; a broad reach of lake frontage and a small beach.
In a brief interview at her husband’s campaign event here two weeks ago, Ann Romney said the family first came to Lake Winnipesaukee decades ago to visit friends. Public records show they bought their house from a Marriott executive, adding tennis courts, a $250,000 boathouse with four slips, and extra bedrooms, which have been needed as their family has grown to include 16 grandchildren . (The family also has an oceanfront home in La Jolla, Calif., and another residence in Massachusetts, where he served as governor.)
Even locals who aren’t fond of Romney say his family has been an understated and unobtrusive presence here. Often, the only tip they are town is when Romney wanders into Bradley Hardware or takes his grandchildren for ice cream at Bailey’s Bubble, which draws crowds even in the rain.
On a recent morning, Romney slid into one of the blue booths at downtown’s Wolfeborough Diner for a quiet breakfast alone. Privacy is so sacrosanct here that the owner declined to say what he ordered.
“The reason celebrities come here is people understand that they want to be left alone,” said Peter Kelly, the third-generation owner of the Yum Yum Shop across the street, which has sold black raspberry doughnuts since 1948. “The only ones that bother them are the tourists.”
New Hampshire looms not only as home but also a critical political base for Romney, who has pinned early success on winning the state’s first-in-the-nation primary. But he was living here in 2008, when he lost the primary to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz..
Former Gov. John Sununu said Romney may get an indirect benefit because his presence means “he hears New Hampshire talking.”
And Romney still has time to win over undecided voters like Hot Dog Bob, who backed McCain in 2008 and currently ranks former Utah Gov. Huntsman over his Wolfeboro neighbor.
Asked what Romney could do change that, he said: “Maybe if he buys a hot dog.”