Mitt Romney tops New Hampshire GOP straw poll. Does it mean anything?

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won a GOP straw poll of state committee members on Saturday. But it's a year before the first-in-the-nation primary, and the presidential field is unsettled.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Former Massachussetts governor Mitt Romney speaks in Washington in this September file photo.

Is Mitt Romney the man to beat in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation GOP presidential primary next year?

Signs are pointing that way. Mr. Romney handily won a straw poll of New Hampshire Republican State Committee members on Saturday – a temperature-taking that comes a full year before voters actually go to the polls. He also led, by a sizable margin, in a statewide poll of GOP voters and GOP-leaning independents, released Jan. 6 by the online news outlet NH Journal.

It’s early yet in the 2012 presidential race – so early that no GOP presidential aspirant has even officially thrown a hat in the ring. Though winning the New Hampshire primary is often a huge springboard into the rest of the nomination season, being tagged the front-runner this early in the game is a precarious position.

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For one, everyone else will be trying to knock Mr. No. 1 down a peg. And while front-runner status may attract donors and talented campaign staff, it also raises expectations for a positive outcome – and anything less than a definitive win will be counted as a crushing setback.

Hence, it’s almost a sure-fire thing that Romney will play down the outcome of Saturday’s nonbinding straw poll, in which 20 names were on the ballot (along with “other”). Conducted by ABC News and local WMUR-TV, the survey showed Romney with 35 percent, followed by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 11 percent, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at 8 percent, 2008 vice-presidential nominee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at 7 percent, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota at 4 percent. (Is it coincidence that New Hampshirites picked mainly contenders from cold-weather states?)

In the NH Journal poll of actual likely New Hampshire voters about two weeks earlier, Romney led with 39 percent. The closest competitors were Ms. Palin with 16 percent, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 10, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 8, Mr. Paul at 7, and Ms. Bachmann at 4.

“Mitt Romney’s strength is not surprising considering his close second-place finish to John McCain in 2008 [in the New Hampshire GOP primary] and his regional advantage of being a former border state governor” of Massachusetts, pollster David Flaherty of Magellan Strategies told NH Journal on Jan. 6. He cautioned, too, that because the 2012 race is off to a somewhat slow start (slower than in 2008, at least), voters are relatively uninformed about the possible candidates and their positions. Read: A lot of people may change their inclinations once the field becomes clearer.

Also not necessarily working to Romney’s advantage is the tea party movement’s rising strength in New Hampshire. His emerging campaign apparatus, currently in the form of state political action committees, draws mainly from establishment Republicans and the business community. He is said to not be courting tea party activists.

However, tea party power was evident in Derry on Saturday. The 400-plus New Hampshire Republican State Committee members elected Jack Kimball as their new party chairman. He defeated a candidate backed by the GOP establishment, in a tight vote. Mr. Kimball hit a spot of trouble recently after telling NH Journal that his aim was to "put forth a strong conservative presidential candidate." He subsequently backed off that statement, but some party regulars criticized him for possibly jeopardizing New Hampshire's coveted title as first to hold a presidential primary.

Next up for the GOP presidential field is the Iowa straw poll, in August. (Romney won the GOP caucus there in 2008, but hardly anyone else competed.) Ms. Bachmann, a tea party favorite who has lately been hinting that she is considering a presidential run, was in Iowa on Saturday, doing the things that presidential hopefuls do there leading into next year’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

With the straw poll and the NH Journal poll putting him on top, Romney now counts two feathers in his not-yet-in-the-ring hat. One more and, poof, it’s a trend! He’ll be the bona fide front-runner in New Hampshire, whether he likes it or not.

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