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Real battle in New Hampshire primary is for No. 2, and it's getting fierce

Mitt Romney has a 20-point lead heading into Tuesday's GOP in New Hampshire, polls show. But more than one-third of likely GOP voters there are undecided, intensifying the race for second.

By Staff writer / January 7, 2012

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at a campaign rally in New Hampshire on Saturday.

Jim Bourg/Reuters

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Tilton, N.H.

All that was missing was a crown, as GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney returned to New Hampshire Friday, after a foray to South Carolina, to be met by cheers and by supporters who jammed into a spaghetti dinner here to welcome him back.

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This is Romney country, and the question is not whether the former Massachusetts governor will win Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, but by how much. That removes some of the suspense that the nation experienced last week in Iowa, where Mr. Romney edged out former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum by a mere eight votes. 

Barring a surprise in the back-to-back GOP presidential debates on Saturday and Sunday, the New Hampshire primary is all about who snags second place.

“Whoever comes out of New Hampshire No. 2 will be able to call it a victory, because Romney is running against his own expectations,” says Wayne L’Esperance, a political scientist at New England College in Henniker, N.H.  

On his second run for the presidency, Romney leads his GOP rivals in the Granite State by at least 20 percentage points, according to latest polls. A recent CNN poll also has Romney up by 18 points in South Carolina, the first Southern primary, to be held Jan. 21.

Romney aides insist that the New Hampshire primary is not a coronation. “Our strategy from the start was to earn it. Our mantra is to run like we’re three votes down with three minutes to go,” says New Hampshire coordinator Jim Merrill.  

Yet from the start, Romney Inc. has cultivated an aura of inevitability, claiming to be the only campaign capable of going toe to toe with President Obama and his $1 billion war chest. Indeed, the Romney camp's early display of organizational clout and funding helped to deter several big GOP names, among them Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and US House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, from entering the race. 

Minus Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who opted out of the New Hampshire contest, most of the remaining GOP candidates are scrambling to emerge from New Hampshire as the conservative alternative to Romney – or, at least, with enough momentum to continue the fight in South Carolina and Florida.

Ron Paul sitting pretty

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