Who Will Emerge as Romney’s Foil in New Hampshire?

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Mario Anzuoni/Reuters; Phelan M. Ebenhack/Getty; Scott Audette/Reuters

Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul and Rick Perry.

Manchester, N.H.

After months of good fortune, Mitt Romney is having a particularly blessed week. Chris Christie’s announcement Tuesday that he will forgo a presidential bid cleared the field of a hefty obstacle –a moderate Northeastern Republican positioned to siphon off some of Romney’s support. But the bigger boost to Romney’s buoyant prospects in the Granite State may be the interstate skirmish over the GOP’s primary schedule, which will likely nudge New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary into early January, if not December.

The truncated timetable will be a boon to a candidate who already boasts a battery of advantages, not least his fundraising acumen and the widening gap in the polls between Romney and his closest opponent. He is a familiar face in a state that prefers known quantities. His team has learned from the mistakes of Romney’s failed bid here four years ago, New Hampshire insiders say, and has so far run a nimble campaign that’s curried favor with county sheriffs, local editorial boards and many of the state’s nearly 300 Republican state representatives. In recent weeks, Romney nabbed key endorsements from D.J. Bettencourt, the youthful majority leader, and George Lovejoy, a veteran Granite State politico whose conservative bona fides should help dispel doubts about Romney’s own.

The conventional wisdom holds that the race for the Republican nomination is shaping up as a two-man tussle between Romney and Rick Perry. But in New Hampshire, there will be a pitched battle between the candidates vying to become Romney’s foil.  “It’s been a race unto itself as to who is going to be the alternative to Romney,” says Rich Killion, a New Hampshire Republican strategist who advised Romney in 2008, signed on with Tim Pawlenty this year and is currently unaffiliated.

The winner will require two things: time and money. “Organization helps, but it can’t make up for the time you spend here,” says Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member who is neutral in the race. (His wife is a Romney volunteer.) “Time is the most precious commodity for any candidate. [New Hampshire] takes much more on-the-ground effort than any other state in the country.”

One candidate who will certainly put in the time is Jon Huntsman, who has shifted his national headquarters here from Florida and is staking his campaign, which is getting no traction anywhere else, on a strong showing in the Granite State. With a veteran New Hampshire staff, Huntsman has relentlessly courted the state’s conservatives, pouring himself into the house parties and small-bore retail work that are staples of a New Hampshire effort. His anemic poll numbers climbed into double digits in a recent state survey, and his  fiscal conservatism and comparatively moderate bent on social issues align with the state’s leanings. Huntsman is also likely the candidate best positioned to benefit from New Hampshire’s open-primary rules and the absence of a contest across the aisle, which could give Democrats and independents an outsize voice in the contest. “Registered independents will outnumber self-identified Tea Partyers by multiples on primary day,” says Fergus Cullen, an unaffiliated former state party chair who contends that Huntsman has “a lot of potential” in New Hampshire even as his national numbers remain negligible.

If Republicans looking for a Romney alternative zero in on Huntsman, those searching for an anti-Romney may home in on Rick Perry. Perry’s savvy top strategist, Dave Carney, is a New Hampshire native, and he’s assembled what local Republicans say is a robust political operation in short order. Almost before the Texas governor had set foot in the state, he racked up the endorsement of 27 state representatives, illustrating the extent to which a faction of the GOP hungers for a candidate who contrasts sharply with Romney. But Perry’s struggles in recent debates, and the chinks in his conservative record revealed by the national media spotlight, have dimmed his star a bit. More importantly, Perry will suffer from the time constraints created by a front-loaded primary schedule. Unlike Huntsman — and, at least so far, Romney — Perry has plunged himself into the task of capturing the Iowa caucus, and there may not be enough time to pull off both.

Huntsman and Perry have plenty of competition in a crowded field. Ron Paul still boasts a fan base with unmatched zeal, and his campaign has ironed out the organizational kinks that plagued it four years ago, orchestrating a well-tuned operation that has criss-crossed the state. Perry’s slump, meanwhile, has dovetailed with the unlikely rise of Herman Cain, who’s running second in a new Quinnipiac national poll, tied for second in a national Washington Post/ABC News survey, and occupying the pole position in new Public Policy Polling surveys of GOP voters in North Carolina, West Virginia and Nebraska. Measurements of national support mean little in the New Hampshire primary, and Cain has made the confounding decision to forgo the rigors of the trail to decamp on a national book tour, feeding the pervasive sense that he’s not a viable presidential contender. Still, “everyone who sees Herman Cain comes away very impressed,” says Donna Sytek, a former House Speaker who backs Romney.

Regardless of who emerges as his stiffest competition in New Hampshire, Romney will start the final sprint with a sizable head start. “It’s been textbook,” Cullen says of the Romney campaign. “I don’t think there’s any question Romney has done the best job in New Hampshire in terms of organizing. He’s been running for President for five years.” But the final three months may still hold opportunities for his rivals. “There’s a long way to go,” says Killion, the former adviser. “One thing about New Hampshire voters: they decide late.”