MANCHESTER, N.H. – The storylines to watch as the returns come in Tuesday night in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary are pretty straightforward, though when “real people,” also known as the voters, elbow aside the cud-chewing pundits and start sorting things out, strange things can and sometimes do happen.
ROMNEY: Is it big enough?
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney went into Tuesday with a slightly melting but still substantial lead, and seemed poised to win by double digits. If that happens, the talk of Romney as the ultimate nominee should reach a crescendo and Republican establishment-types will continue rallying around him. A win would make Romney the first Republican candidate to win the first two nominating contests since 1976, when Iowa and New Hampshire cemented their places as the leadoff states. That’s impressive no matter what.
But if Romney’s win seems unimpressive to the party and analysts after a few days of rough road, then the perception might persist that he is having a difficult time closing the sale with conservative activists and generating enthusiasm in the party. The largest Republican super-PAC, the Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads, released a memo Tuesday arguing that Romney has the best chance of becoming the nominee, despite the narrative that he is stuck at a “ceiling” of 25 percent support of the GOP electorate.
“With Romney, as opposed to virtually every other candidate in the GOP field this cycle, the difference is that his negatives (all candidates have them) are already widely known and built into his level of support,” wrote Jonathan Collegio, communicatiosn director for American Crossroads. “There is there is very little out there about Romney that Republican voters don’t already know that could significantly affect his support…That may well be an underlying reason why Republicans almost always nominate candidates who have run in previous elections.”
Romney ran for president and lost in 2008.
HUNTSMAN: Is the momentum real?
In the past few days, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has surged and he has a decent chance of passing libertarian icon (and Texas Rep.) Ron Paul for second place. He’s had the biggest buzz and the biggest crowds in the state, and New Hampshire voters, who tend to eschew social-issues conservatives, seem to like his moderate tone and stances on global warming, and support for civil unions for same-sex couples.
Huntsman, who left the governor’s office in Salt Lake City to accept an appointment as President Obama’s ambassador to China, won plaudits for pushing back on Romney’s attack against him for consorting with the socialist in chief. “Country first,” became his rallying cry. A second place showing here would be a boost, but how much of one? South Carolina is considerably more conservative than New Hampshire, and Huntsman spent all of his campaign time here. Would he have the infrastructure and chops to continue into Florida (Jan. 31) and beyond?
And if Paul finishes strong and pushes Huntsman down to third, would that make a difference?
NEWT vs. RICK SANTORUM
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are in competition for third, or more likely fourth, place finish in New Hampshire – and the one who comes out on top would have an opportunity to argue he is the better candidate to unite the evangelical and social-conservative bloc in the party in the next contest, South Carolina, to try to stop Romney from locking down the nomination.
Santorum finished second, eight votes behind the winner, Romney, in Iowa where evangelical voters are a dominant majority of the electorate, but he has found that his staunch opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage has been less popular in New Hampshire, which has a strong tradition of economic conservatism combined a "live and let live" attitude on personal freedom.
Gingrich was damaged badly in Iowa with negative attacks on his record, but he has gained some traction with a populist critique of Romney's former career as a corporate takeover specialist at Bain Capital.
Unaffiliated voters can choose a ballot in either party’s primary and don’t have to change their registration to do so, unlike. In 2008, exit polls showed that 37 percent of voters in the GOP New Hampshire primary were independents; they were 42 percent in 2000, when John McCain defeated George W. Bush here.
If independents turn out in large numbers, analysts say that would probably be a good thing for Paul and Huntsman, who were drawing the most support from this bloc in pre-primary polls.