Will New Hampshire Matter More?

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Iowa has been getting all the attention of late, but it’s entirely possible that when it comes to choosing the ultimate Republican nominee, the caucuses won’t matter all that much. It’s not hard to imagine Michele Bachmann winning the state and then failing to translate to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina–places where she’ll lack a geographic advantage, and, at least in the first two states, where red-meat social conservatism packs a lighter punch. A Bachmann win, in other words, might well be an ephemeral, Huckabee ’08-like event. And if Mitt Romney–who after all was the frontrunner in the latest Des Moines Register poll–wins Iowa, then the state will only have affirmed the status quo.

Which is why New Hampshire seems to have more potential to shake things up. No one really expects Romney to win Iowa, after all. But New Hampshire is where the former Massachusetts governor has his own geographic advantage. That much is evident from the Suffolk University/WHDH TV poll released Tuesday night, which shows Romney with a commanding lead at 36 percent, 25 points ahead of his next closest rival. Sure, that rival is Bachmann, who has surged 8 points since May, to 11%. But you have to wonder how much farther Bachmann can rise in a state far more moderate than Iowa. On paper, Jon Huntsman promises to be Romney’s chief Granite State rival, but he registers a puny 4%.

And then there’s Tim Pawlenty, who, after formally announcing his candidacy last month, conducting a national media blitz, laying out a bold economic plan–and even getting a meaty profile in TIME magazine!–has somehow dropped three points to a pathetic two percent. (Pawlenty’s advisers say that it’s wrong to assert he must win Iowa, but it’s awfully hard to see how he survives New Hampshire without making a Hawkeye splash first. And if Jill Lawrence is right, Pawlenty is in some deep doo-doo out there.)

So truth be told, New Hampshire’s not looking so dramatic, either. And while Romney could have some trouble in South Carolina, where Mormons don’t seem terribly popular, his prospects in Nevada and Florida are promising. Which suggests that Mitt Romney, who is likely to announce a whopping fundraising haul in the coming days, might be in for an easier ride than people are predicting. After all, it’s not like his health care record in Massachusetts is a big secret, even if the attack ads haven’t begun yet. But Romney’s still in first place, and, although it’s still early, it’s easy to imagine him staying there.