Ain't no stoppin' him now

The only person who could rally to stop Mitt Romney (pictured above with some extras from "The Lawrence Welk Show") from getting the GOP nomination would be Tim Tebow, but I don't think he's entering the race. Here's why, from our running feature this week called tomorrow's news today:

In past years, New Hampshire primary voters have had something in common with Mitt Romney: They‘ve liked being able to fire overconfident presidential frontrunners-- and shake up the conventional wisdom.

But tonight the flinty-eyed electorate of 2012’s first-in-the-nation primary – the same folks who ended the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and stuck out their icy tongues at George W. Bush and Barack Obama --- came up with a new way to stick it to the pundit man.

They voted for inevitability.

New Hampshire’s overwhelming victory for its New England neighbor – despite increasingly pointed attacks from GOP rivals against his role in laying off workers as a venture capitalist and his moderate record as Massachusetts governor in the 2000s – didn’t guarantee Romney’s nomination, but it made him very hard to stop.

The clear message from voters in the Granite State – both Republicans and thousands of independent who are disaffected from President Obama and voted in the GOP contest – is that they are looking for the candidate with the best chance of winning.  Network exit polls showed that one-third of New Hampshire voters cited “electability” as their No. 1 factor and only one-in-seven said they were seeking a “true conservative,” a big drop-off from Iowa where evangelicals propelled Rick Santorum to a virtual tie with Romney.

“They want a candidate they believe can match up with President Obama,” said G. Terry Madonna, the Franklin and Marshall College political scientist and pollster, who said last night’s win moved Romney well down the path toward the nomination. “There’s an old saying that in the primaries you vote your heart and in the general you vote your mind – but these Republicans have become realists about beating Obama.”

At a packed Romney rally on Monday afternoon at a metal fabricating plant in Hudson, N.H., well-coiffed retirees and Republican regulars repeatedly cited his business experience as founder of Bain Capital as a huge positive, as well as familiarity with his record in neighboring Massachusetts and a sense that no one else was more likely to beat Obama.

 “He can get this country back to work again,” said Ray Hayes, a retiree and Vietnam veteran from Milford, N.H., after a brief Romney speech that was long on patriotic applause lines and short on policy specifics.

Tonight, a confident Romney launched into a victory speech less than a half-hour after the last polls closed at 8 p.m., and lashed back at critics of his jobs record at Bain Capital. “I stand ready to lead us down a different path,” he said, “where we’re lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by resentment of success.”

The New Hampshire win – although just short of the high expectations of some pundits who thought Romney could pull in 40 percent – should have his chief rivals resenting his political success, if not his wealth.  Indeed, Romney could have things close to wrapped up after the next primary, on January 21 in South Carolina. Here’s why:

-- Ron Paul, who finished a strong second, may have peaked. The libertarian congressman from Texas placed a surprisingly strong second-place in New Hampshire, thanks to his support from under-30 voters and independents. Indeed, Paul roughly tied with Romney among the large number of independents in the Granite State – but South Carolina and other upcoming key states are closed to Republicans, and party stalwarts generally reject Paul’s isolationist and anti-war foreign policy.

-- The schedule is also cruel for Jon Huntsman, who placed a solid third in New Hampshire after shunning Iowa and betting the farm on independent-minded voters here. It’s hard to see how the self-styled GOP moderate keeps any mild momentum going into ultra-conservative South Carolina, a tea party hotbed where primary voters in 2010 rejected an incumbent GOP congressman after he told voters to “turn off Glenn Beck.”

-- The Rick Santorum surge didn’t live free in New Hampshire…it died. The former Pennsylvania senator had hoped his strong showing in Iowa would propel him as the leading conservative alternative to Romney – but that push faltered amid a lack of money, poor logistics, and head-scratching over Santorum’s views on social issues like gay marriage. Last night, Santorum was in fourth just slightly ahead of his right-wing rival Newt Gingrich – a result that makes his mission in South Carolina all but impossible, especially with a pro-Gingrich billionaire committed to spending $5 million in the Palmetto State.

The bottom line after last night is that Romney is the only non-incumbent Republican ever to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, and a deeply divided right wing may guarantee a South Carolina victory as well. Said the Pennsylvania pundit Madonna: “This is an ideal scenario for Romney.”

UPDATE: Forgot to mention I'm talking a well-deserved (not really) comp day tomorrow, but I'll be back Thursday and hopefully will have more to say about the unbearable lightness of Mitt.