There are growing signs that the Republican primary campaign might be a long and muddy slog, a slow grind to accumulate delegates that doesn’t produce a nominee until spring or even summer; a contest more in the World War I style of Obama v. Clinton 2008 than the D-Day landing of George W. Bush 2000. But there’s also a scenario in which, one month from now, Mitt Romney suffers a blow so damaging that he might never recover: defeat in New Hampshire. For much of this year, Mitt Romney’s status as default front-runner in the Republican nomination fight rested in large measure on the assumption that he was a shoo-in to win the New Hampshire primary. Romney appeared to have everything going for him in the Granite State. He’d spent four years as governor of neighboring Massachusetts. He’d bought a lakefront house in the town of Wolfeboro, where he spent several months a year—effectively becoming a part-time state resident. He spent the bulk of 2011 mostly ignoring Iowa and focusing time and resources to the east. The polls painted a picture of total dominance: Romney has placed first in every New Hampshire survey cataloged by Real Clear Politics dating back to April.
Suddenly, however, New Hampshire is starting to look less like a Romney firewall and more like a burial ground. Several recent polls show Newt Gingrich, who a couple of months ago was running 30 or more points behind Romney, within 10 to 17 points of the New Hampshire leader. Newt has obvious momentum while Romney has sunk a few points from his October and November highs. Could Romney be on track to a disastrous New Hampshire defeat?
It’s possible. Flash back four years: By mid-2007, Romney held a durable New Hampshire lead. After a brief October run by Rudy Giuliani, Romney went into December leading the GOP pack by double digits. Then, at almost this precise moment in December of ‘07, John McCain began a surge that would lead him to victory on primary night. Note that on this day exactly one cycle ago, the gap between Romney and McCain was only a few points narrower than the one that now exists between Romney and Gingrich.
Could Newt be this year’s McCain? There are some similarities. Both men are viewed as authentic and independent thinkers. Like McCain, Gingrich has won the backing of the state’s influential conservative newspaper, the New Hampshire Union Leader. The Union Leader does more than endorse and stand back; its editorials cheerlead repeatedly. And when the paper dislikes a candidate—and the Union Leader happens to dislike Mitt Romney a lot—it reminds its readers on a regular basis. (Sunday’s paper featured a fierce front-page editorial counterattacking the “desperate” anti-Newt remarks of former New Hampshire Governor and Romney surrogate John Sununu.)
Finally, like McCain, Newt stands to pick up supporters from other GOP candidates who are already fizzling out or who are likely to crater after dismal showings in Iowa. (Think Bachmann and Santorum. In 2008, McCain grew as Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani collapsed.)
Still, Newt has a lot of ground to make up and he is under attack from multiple directions. But he may have a critical ally. Jon Huntsman has basically been living in New Hampshire since the fall. He’s beginning to spend real money on television advertising there and has been inching up in the polls as a result. Huntsman’s political profile – a temperamental moderate focused on economics over social issues, a wealthy former governor, and a Mormon to boot – is quite similar to Romney’s. It stands to reason that if Huntsman gains more traction in New Hampshire, he might start peeling supporters away from Romney. No wonder Gingrich and Huntsman were able to sit for such a friendly one-on-one debate session in New Hampshire on Monday night. Huntsman was glad to bask in the new front-runner’s glow, while Newt is surely rooting for the former U.S. ambassador to China to help him topple Romney.
Not everyone sees the dynamics this way. Former New Hampshire Republican Chairman Fergus Cullen says he thinks Romney is likely to fend off Gingrich in the end. He is particularly skeptical that Huntsman, whom he admires, will steal votes from Romney. “The people who are with Romney have a balanced view of him,” Cullen says. “They know the good and the bad, and aren’t going to say, ‘Hold it! What’s this you say about his health care plan in Massachusetts?’ just don’t see them pulling away.”
Perhaps. But on primary day in 2008, Romney finished second at 28%, about five points behind his early December peak. Similar forces may be aligned against him this time. The good news is that changes to the Republican primary process, including the awarding of more delegates on a proportional basis, make a drawn-out primary campaign more likely, somewhat diminishing the role of the early states. Still, the psychology of a Romney defeat in New Hampshire would be disastrous, particularly if Gingrich wins Iowa and remains poised to romp in the following contest, South Carolina. Mitt Romney may find that, as was the case in 2008, recovering from a Granite State defeat will prove impossible. He has just under a month to ensure it doesn’t come to that again.