The 25% Solution: How Romney Plans to Finish By Florida

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney hands a microphone to a woman during a campaign town hall meeting at Central High School Jan. 4, 2012 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

An eight-vote, 25% victory may look weak, but Mitt Romney’s narrow win in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday has his campaign charting a plan for ultimate victory by the time Florida Republicans hold their primary on Jan. 31. The strategy: use a dominating win in New Hampshire to cast weak victories in Iowa and South Carolina as a sign of Romney’s inevitable nomination.

The expectation of a Romney victory in New Hampshire makes an overwhelming showing in next Tuesday’s primary necessary. Romney’s campaign is dispatching their candidate to towns with typically high primary turnout in southern and central New Hampshire, like those in Hillsborough and Belknap Counties. At the same time Romney’s formidable New Hampshire operation is up with TV, radio and print ads, and is calling, e-mailing and snail-mailing likely primary voters.

Senator John McCain, who is campaigning for his 2008 primary rival, told voters in Peterborough, New Hampshire, on Wednesday that the goal was to “get this thing over with” by sending Romney to the Jan. 21 primary in South Carolina “with so much momentum that he can’t be stopped.” A 7 News/Suffolk University tracking poll Wednesday morning had Romney with 43% support in New Hampshire while his closest rival, Ron Paul, had 14%. That margin had widened in recent days, suggesting Romney’s headed in the right direction, but that he may need a blowout to beat expectations.

(PHOTOS: The Iowa Caucus in Two Minutes)

Surrogates like McCain are a key part to the Romney plan to project inevitability. Endorsements typically don’t guarantee votes, but the campaign believes that by dispatching known politicians state-wide in New Hampshire and South Carolina, it can increase coverage by recognized figures, driving pro-Romney voters. In the Granite State, the campaign is dispatching New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, Congressman Charlie Bass, former GOP candidate and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu. In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley will join McCain to do events with Romney on Thursday and Friday in moderate retirement districts in Charleston and Myrtle Beach. The campaign hopes Sen. Lindsey Graham will eventually back Romney, and will campaign for him; Graham says he has no plans to endorse a candidate yet.

The New Hampshire fight may get ugly, and the South Carolina one surely will. Romney supporters are watching for the expected push back from Newt Gingrich, who plummeted in the polls after pro-Romney groups attacked him in Iowa and elsewhere. The response will be to ignore the former Speaker and act presidential in the expectation that Gingrich will do as much damage to himself as he will to Romney. Rick Santorum has spent a lot of time in New Hampshire and is viewed as a threat; the attacks on him, Romney aides say, will focus on his time on Capitol Hill and in his role as a Washington power player after his 2006 Senate loss–the same attacks that worked against Gingrich.

(PHOTOS: Battle for Iowa: the Final Days of the Caucus Campaign in Photos)

Romney’s hope for South Carolina is that Gingrich, Santorum, Congressman Ron Paul and Texas Governor Rick Perry will split the conservative vote sufficiently to allow a low showing—perhaps even less than the 25% he won in Iowa—to give him a win. As he mounts rear-guard actions against the GOP attacks, Romney is focusing his forward efforts on Obama, attacking his record, running to the President’s right on foreign policy and appealing to independents where that helps. In Peterborough, Romney praised FDR for starting the tradition of putting one’s hand over one’s heart while singing the national anthem, and said his foreign policy would be based on Harry Truman’s principles.

(MORE: Q&A with Ron Paul, Iowa’s Third-Place Finisher)

The last element of the Romney strategy for victory by the end of January is to talk as if a win is unlikely, even as he tries to project inevitability. The early voters of New Hampshire and South Carolina hate being taken for granted, so those around Romney are declaring they’re hunkering down for the long term, well past Florida. After a Romney event in Manchester Wednesday, Gov. Sununu said soberly, “I think we have to get used to the idea that this is a long haul campaign.” Unless Romney can help it.