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.
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
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is currently No. 2, according to a new poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center for WMUR-TV. He is followed by Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich, both at 8 percent, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. at 7 percent.
But it’s not over. Thirty-seven percent of likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire are undecided, and 26 percent describe themselves as only leaning toward any given candidate, according to the WMUR poll. Independents not captured by the “likely Republican voter” screen for such polls could upset the expected outcome, if they turn out in big numbers.
“Because Romney has been seen as a front-runner for so long, we’re not seeing as much advertising or ground game from the other candidates,” says pollster Andrew Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul are fighting very hard to get the second spot, and Huntsman has largely conceded.”
A phenomenon in American politics, Representative Paul packed an airline hanger, mainly with younger voters, at the Nashua, N.H., airport on Friday, in his first appearance in the state since the Iowa caucuses. “Freedom is popular!” he told cheering supporters who drove in from all over the state and beyond.
Criticized for not shoring up a strong No. 3 finish in Iowa by coming straight to New Hampshire, Paul told reporters he plans to be “very active in these last five days,” especially in pointing out how other candidates supported big government in the past.
“This is not a state that likes big government, and if they do go for somebody who voted for big government that means they didn’t get enough information,” he said. Asked whether Santorum, who is rising in polls since his near-victory in Iowa, is now his “biggest competitor,” Paul said, “Hardly!”
“He brags about being for the balanced budget amendment, but never did anything about it,” he added. “He voted four or five times to raise the national debt, voted to double the size of the Department of Education, at the same time he voted to massively increase the prescription-drug program, which is a medical program not paying its own way.”
The Paul campaign is running ads in New Hampshire slamming Gingrich for “serial hypocrisy,” and on Friday it introduced a new ad that dubbed Santorum “another serial hypocrite,” saying the former senator has a “record of betrayal” on conservative principles. On Friday, Paul disavowed an online ad by a self-identified Paul supporter that refers to Huntsman, a former US ambassador to China, as a “Manchurian candidate” who has Chinese values and used images of his adopted Chinese daughter.
Crunch time for Jon Huntsman Jr.
For no one is the need to exceed expectations Tuesday greater than for Huntsman, who skipped the Iowa caucuses and dismantled his headquarters in Florida to focus on a strong showing in New Hampshire. With minimal funding and organization, Huntsman plunged into New Hampshire’s brand of retail politics, shaking hands and convening town meetings. A moderate, he is counting on independents and “disenfranchised Obama voters.”
“New Hampshire upends the conventional wisdom of the traveling press corps,” he said at a town meeting in Newport, N.H., on Thursday, his 157th public event in the state. “I’m the underdog in this race, and Americans love the underdog.”
But Huntsman, who describes himself as the “margin of error candidate,” has struggled to define himself in this race. To make a mark here, he needs moderates and fiscal conservatives to shift his way instead of to Romney. So, instead of going after Romney on issues, he slams his status as front-runner.
“The people of New Hampshire don’t like a coronation,” he said Thursday. “If you’re in South Carolina with days to go before the New Hampshire primary, that pretty much suggests you think you have it wrapped up.”
One point that distinguishes Huntsman from his GOP rivals is that he has refused to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge by Americans for Tax Reform, which commits lawmakers never to raise tax rates or eliminate tax breaks, unless they are offset by other spending cuts. “I’m not going to sign some silly pledges that everyone else on the debate stage has done,” he said.
“For us, we have to beat expectations, and when you start at zero, that’s doable,” says campaign manager Matt David.
Rick Santorum: town-hall king
Meanwhile, Santorum and Gingrich are vying to win the support of GOP conservatives wary of Romney’s record as a “Massachusetts moderate.” Appearing at his first town-hall meeting since Iowa, wearing a signature sweater vest and jeans, Santorum said President Obama is “systematically destroying the work ethic through the narcotic of government dependency.” In a nod to Paul voters, he added: “He believes you are incapable of freedom.”
As in Iowa, Santorum has traveled across New Hampshire for more than a year. He has held more than 100 town-hall meetings and claims to have held more events in South Carolina to date than any other candidate. After his strong showing in Iowa, his campaign raised $1 million in a day – about half of all the money the campaign had raised to that point.
“How many pundits were right about what happened [in Iowa]?” Santorum asked at a senior center in Brentwood, N.H., on Wednesday. “None! They’re serially wrong.”
But New Hampshire lacks the powerful social conservative movement that lifted Santorum to a strong finish in Iowa, and Santorum has been battered over his stance opposing gay marriage, which is legal in this state, at campaign stops. On Thursday, he was booed after a sharp, nearly 10-minute exchange with students over the issue at a forum in Concord, N.H.
Newt Gingrich as debate wild card
The wild card in the GOP race Saturday night is Gingrich, who is smarting from massive negative ad campaigns by Romney supporters and by the Paul campaign that toppled him out of first place in Iowa. In Iowa, Gingrich refused to respond in kind. He now says he will take on GOP rivals in debates on the issues.
“I took on Ron Paul for a very specific reason: I believe an Iranian nuclear weapon is a mortal threat to the US, and I think they’ll use it,” he said at a town meeting in remote Lancaster in New Hampshire’s north country on Thursday.
Gingrich has spent less time on the ground here than his competitors have, relying instead on social media to get his message across. In the past, Gingrich has stood out in GOP debates, and the ones here Saturday and Sunday could yet help his campaign.
“I just went as negative as you’ll see me go,” he said, after the meeting. “Telling the truth is as far as we have to go, and Romney has a totally indefensible record.”