New Hampshire Creates Big Expectations, if Little Drama, as GOP Race Wears On

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney holds a campaign rally at Exeter High School in Exeter, New Hampshire, Jan. 8, 2012.

Somersworth, New Hampshire

In a final, frantic day of campaigning before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, the six Republican presidential hopefuls sought to calibrate expectations for a race from which Mitt Romney’s healthy lead has sapped much of the late drama.

Romney’s New Hampshire lead has held firm, forcing his rivals to jockey for position with each other as the former Massachusetts governor coasts toward what is likely to be a comfortable victory. The race has tightened slightly in its closing week, but Romney boasts a double-digit lead in every poll, with 33% in Monday’s daily Suffolk University tracking survey, a 13-point lead over Ron Paul, his nearest competitor. Rivals seized Monday on Romney’s comment that he “likes being able to fire people” — which, taken out of context, dovetails neatly into attacks on his record running Bain Capital — but the barrage of criticism is almost certainly too late to jeopardize his edge in the Granite State. Romney doesn’t need to win in a “landslide,” as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Romney surrogate, said this week. But an unexpected nail-biter could dampen the case for his inevitability.

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Behind Romney sits Ron Paul, who appears to have an inside track for second place. Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign chairman, told TIME that a “strong second” was the worst-case scenario for the Texas congressman, whose loyal band of followers fanned out across the state Monday to enumerate the merits of their candidate outside opponents’ public events. Consecutive strong finishes would vault him into South Carolina and beyond. Paul will skip Florida, scrambling instead to rack up delegates in caucus states where his organizational power will be unmatched except by Romney.

With the top two slots crystallizing, the three-way battle for third place will likely be where the action is Tuesday. Rick Santorum, whose shoe-leather campaign spurred him to a virtual draw in Iowa, admitted Monday that he won’t duplicate the feat in New Hampshire. “I’d be ecstatic with second place,” Santorum told reporters outside a diner in Derry Monday afternoon, with a cocked eyebrow that suggested he knew it wouldn’t happen.

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“Governor Romney basically lives here and has spent, as all candidates hve, a lot of money on television. We didn’t have it,” Santorum said. “Look, Ron Paul has run here about 17 times. To do as well as him, I’m not sure that’s possible, but if we do, it would be a huge win for us.”

The admission was a stark reversal from the hopeful note Santorum and his staff struck in the aftermath of Iowa. Santorum boasted that he had assembled an underrated organization in New Hampshire over the course of more than 30 visits, and aides, including campaign manager Mike Biundo, a New Hampshire native, said the former Pennsylvania Senator’s piety and economic populism would play well in a Northeastern state that is nearly 40% Catholic.

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But after boosting expectations in New Hampshire, Santorum risks failing to meet them. His super PAC didn’t run television ads to compete with the Romney and Paul spots inundating the airwaves. Instead he relied solely on the same  retail formula that paid dividends in Iowa but was never likely to erase a massive deficit in New Hampshire. “Obviously there’s a short run up” between Iowa and New Hampshire he said, by way of acknowledging the blueprint wouldn’t pay off in time, particularly since questioners at his marathon town halls have zeroed in on Santorum’s stance on social issues and muddled his larger message. The result has been an awkward straddle, which saw Santorum spend Sunday in the Palmetto State and left him soft-pedaling expectations for New Hampshire after an initial burst of enthusiasm.

Though advisers argue otherwise, Santorum may have been better served jetting straight to South Carolina, which will play a crucial role in determining which candidate — if any –can unite social conservatives and Tea Partyers to foil Romney. A top Santorum adviser says the decision to play hard in New Hampshire was partly a function of the campaign’s strained finances: it made sense, says the aide, to capitalize on the momentum and free media afforded by the pack of national press descending on the Granite State, particularly since Santorum lacked the money to run television ads widely. The campaign also felt that any candidate vying to be the GOP’s national standard-bearer had to prove their mettle on inhospitable terrain rather than cherry-picking his battles.

In the race for third, the only candidate finishing strong is Jon Huntsman, whose long tour of New Hampshire has yielded teeming crowds and an uptick in the polls during the primary’s last days. Having tethered his hopes to a strong finish here, Huntsman has been coy about defining what constitutes success, allowing only that he must “beat market expectations” but refusing to define them. Nate Silver’s latest projections Monday night gave Huntsman 16.5% of the vote, behind only Romney and Paul. That would almost certainly be enough to propel Huntsman forward in the race even if he’s unlikely to repeat such success elsewhere barring an injection of cash from his billionaire father.

Also in the mix is Newt Gingrich, who’s conceded that he’s unlikely to stymie Romney or spring an upset in New Hampshire and is looking ahead on the calendar. After finishing fourth in Iowa, a similar showing would be enough, Gingrich said, to carry him into the Jan. 21 primary in South Carolina, where a super PAC allied with his campaign has bought more than $3 million in ad time to bludgeon Romney. “We’ll win South Carolina,” Gingrich told ABC News on Monday. “That’s my must-win state.”

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The same is true for the wounded Rick Perry, who skipped campaigning in New Hampshire to head straight for the Palmetto State, which he likened to his Alamo. Santorum also sees the South Carolina primary, which one of his advisers told TIME would be a “bloody” battle, as critical to his goal of emerging as the primary alternative to Romney. “We have to finish really well there,” he said Monday. Particularly since his hopes for finishing really well in New Hampshire have faded.

With reporting by Katy Steinmetz