The Great New Hampshire Heist

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While most of the media have gone ridiculously aflutter over Sarah Palin’s latest diesel-powered tourist outing slash fan dance, a far more interesting caper is quietly unfolding in New Hampshire. Former New York governor George Pataki is airing a new ad on a Granite State TV station, WMUR. The ad comes from a Pataki-sponsored group called No American Debt and is perfectly attuned to New Hampshire’s flinty primary electorate. So while others are playing cat and mouse with reporters, inspecting farms in Iowa with more hogs than people and pleading with legions of self-appointed Tea Party generalissimos, Pataki is running a very effective spot in New Hampshire.

I saw it and had to smile. My bet? Pataki is going to try to steal the New Hampshire primary: First, ignore all the silly inside games and get on television pronto with a good message. Move up quietly in the polls — with Mitt Romney sitting at a third of the vote, Palin unelectable and Tim Pawlenty drifting near the margin of error, Pataki could televise his way into second or third place in Granite State polls by midsummer. Then let the national media discover the Pataki surge and get bonkers about it. With that national attention, reboot the once massive Pataki money machine in New York State and start attracting more national money and support. Light the right match, and if it combusts correctly, stand back and watch the fire grow.

If Pataki generates real heat in New Hampshire, it will create an enormous headache for Romney. The last thing Romney needs is another can-do Northeastern governor in the race. It’s even worse for the ideologically murky Jon Huntsman, who is banking on a very similar formula of independents and mainline Republicans to sore his own New Hampshire upset. In a final Shakespearean twist, Pataki’s old home-state rival Rudy Giuliani will be watching all this carefully and thinking dark thoughts about the idea of President Pataki. He too is hinting at a possible run.

Pataki’s scheme is a long shot for sure — and the terrain for a socially moderate Republican candidate becomes difficult after New Hampshire — but then again, there is no boost in American politics as powerful as an upset in the New Hampshire primary. And even if this gambit doesn’t make it beyond New Hampshire, Pataki will instantly catapult to the very top of the GOP’s VP list. This old campaign dog still knows how to find the bone.

Mike Murphy is a Republican political consultant.