With two months left to go before the New Hampshire primary, a clear alternative to Mitt Romney has yet to emerge among the GOP candidates.
“My instinct is to go with Romney, even though I don’t agree with all his issues,” says Ginny Robinson, preparing to march in the Veterans Day parade in Nashua, N.H., with her adopted dogs Daisy and Keene. But she’s saving all the campaign mail just in case someone else rises enough to make her think again.
If Romney can hold the roughly 40 percent of likely primary voters who favored him in polls here in mid-October, his rivals might find themselves hoping for a second-place finish, which could give voters in other states a reason to take a second look.
“I had thought that the not-Romney vote would consolidate … but I don’t see anybody putting together the kind of campaign that can defeat him [here],” says Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who is unaligned in this race.
“The race is wide open for second, and second is a prize worth having,” he says. It would take only about 20 percent of the vote to earn second place, Mr. Cullen and others say.
So who’s in the best position to vie for that spot – or even challenge Romney, as some believe is still possible?
Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, is one to watch, says Patrick Griffin, a senior fellow at St. Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute for Politics and an unaligned GOP consultant.
“There’s a Newt boomlet going on right now ... and Gingrich can make a case that he is the alternative to Romney,” he says.
Gingrich only had about 6 percent of the support in mid-October polls here. But in a Nov. 9 poll of GOP influentials in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa, and Florida, Gingrich came out first in several categories, including which candidate would best handle foreign policy, Obama’s health care law, and illegal immigration.
On the economy, 38 percent chose Romney, with Gingrich coming in second at 19 percent.
Nationally, a CBS poll out Friday shows Gingrich tying Romney for second place to Herman Cain – but 7 out of 10 said it was still too early to know their pick for sure.
Gingrich prompted a standing ovation Thursday night at a forum in Hampton, N.H., where he was joined by Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson, and Buddy Roemer. The crowd of 200 gathered by the tea party-leaning Granite State Liberty Patriots PAC rose and burst into loud applause when Gingrich said Obama’s biggest mistake was “not understanding which country he’s president of.”
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman “has the best shot at second” in New Hampshire, Cullen says. Huntsman’s strategy seems to be “New Hampshire or bust.”
He’s made more than 100 visits to the state, and moved his headquarters here from Florida. Friday he was in New Hampshire attending a ceremony at a veterans cemetery, visiting staff and veterans at a business known nationally for its prosthetics technology, and holding a town hall meeting.
Huntsman’s performance in debates and town halls has been solid, not exceptional, Cullen says, but “philosophically, he’s in the sweet spot of New Hampshire politics.”
While his moderate stances don’t appeal to the most conservative Republicans, he could pick up a strong share of independents – those who haven’t declared a political party and can opt to vote in either party’s primary.
But to capitalize on that potential, Huntsman’s going to need to do more to get on voters’ radar screens, including buying television ads at some point, Cullen says.
At the Veterans Day parade in Nashua, Patrick Sheehan, who plans to vote in the GOP primary, expressed dissatisfaction with the field of candidates – because he thought Huntsman had dropped out. When informed he was still in the race, Mr. Sheehan said he’d vote for Huntsman, because “he seems responsible, down to earth, fiscally conservative, not so socially conservative.”
But Griffin says Huntsman’s chances aren’t so strong, because although his moderate stances may appeal in a general election, in a primary “ideology trumps electability every time.”
What about other candidates who have had a strong showing in national polls or key states?
Rick Perry is out, Griffin says, partly because of his debate gaffes, but more because “he’s a dog who never hunted well in New Hampshire.”
Neither he nor Cullen see the campaigns of Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson, or Buddy Roemer gaining much traction. But not everyone is ready to write off these candidates for a possible second place finish.
Santorum “could push forward in the final weeks,” because he’s spent a significant amount of time in the state, Jennifer Horn, founder of the conservative “We the People” group, writes in an e-mail to the Monitor.
She also notes that Perry “remains a strong conservative choice who does very well in person” and could hold his own if he spends some resources on air time.
Rep. Ron Paul has deep-rooted support here among people who agree with his radical stances, but “he has a definitive ceiling,” Griffin says.
While Paul could get one delegate by earning at least 10 percent of the vote, Cullen says, he agrees with Griffin that he’s not likely to break the 12-15 percent range because his campaign doesn’t have enough mainstream appeal.
Herman Cain, leading in some national polls, is still something of an enigma here. Some observers say he won’t do well because voters wouldn’t be keen to see a sales tax of zero suddenly increase to 9 percent. And he doesn’t have much organization in New Hampshire.
But if the sexual harassment claims against him don’t expand into something that gives voters more pause, “we’ll see [Cain] in New Hampshire more and more ... [and he’s] also the anti-Romney in many ways,” Griffin says. “There is something about him people like. He’s refreshing ... unfiltered.”