In the Arena

New Hampshire: Inconsequential, but Not Boring

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Adam Hunger / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman makes his way through the media as he leaves a polling station in Manchester, N.H., on Jan. 10, 2012

The New Hampshire primary was a disappointment to those of us who love the event. The crowds were minimal. The candidates’ stump performances were largely dreadful. The looming South Carolina bloodbath is likely to be a far more important event in this year’s nominating process. But there are a few things worth noting about the candidates before we move on.

Rick Santorum was dumb and smart. It was silly, strategically, for him to contest New Hampshire. He never really had a chance there, and he does have a chance to do well in South Carolina, where Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are likely to murder each other in a fusillade of negative ads. Santorum should have done what Rick Perry did — show up for the two weekend debates, then get out of town. On the other hand, Santorum was smart not to join the anti–Bain Capital pile-on. This is, after all, a Republican primary. Santorum refused to be critical of Romney’s creative destruction on Sean Hannity’s show on Monday night. He remains alive, if just barely in the race.

Newt Gingrich has squandered an opportunity. He was on the side of the angels, sort of, when he played conscientious objector to Romney’s negative assault in Iowa. Having ginned up a Super PAC of his own, Gingrich might have gone after Romney more in sadness than anger, on issues that would not have alienated his conservative base. But he chose to go after Romney gleefully, lustily, focusing on Romney’s record at Bain — a gambit that will pay off in this nominating race only if examples of Bain’s “looting” other companies can be found. I can’t see Republicans in the long term nominating a candidate who opposes capitalism.

The Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky about the internecine bloodshed. They’ve been handed a gift. Romney’s love of pink slips will stand as a historic blunder, one of the stupidest statements I’ve ever heard a politician make. And yes, it’s mega-dumb even in context. Who actually likes firing people? Only a person who has not even the most rudimentary understanding of what it means to be fired. It’s as insensitive and lunkheaded as saying, “There’s an upside when old people die.” Or, “Miscarriages tend to weed out the bad apples.”

But the fact that Bain has blown so big, so early may not be good news for Democrats. I remember that in 2004, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe raised the “chicken hawk” Air National Guard charge against George W. Bush in a February appearance on Meet the Press. This gave the media and the candidate time to work through all the charges — which, to my mind, were never completely resolved. I’m sure John Kerry’s operatives would have liked to have had that issue in reserve in August, when the Swiftboat Veterans began spewing their bile. It might have thrown Bush onto the defensive at the outset of the general election, taking the heat off Kerry — the charges would have been new, fresh in August; it would have been absolutely necessary for Bush to deal with them. (As it was, Bush got the best of both worlds. The more serious charges, which involved Bush’s lackadaisical attitude toward military service, were handled in the spring, and CBS was suckered into broadcasting some phony documents in September, which undermined the credibility of the earlier, legitimate questions raised about Bush’s service.) The point is, if Romney wins the nomination, this early fuss might inoculate him against the Scrooge gambit. The public may feel Bain is same old, same old by October.

Ron Paul Is it just me, or is his act getting tired? And I mean that both literally and figuratively — the old guy seems wiped. His campaign’s decision to launch a withering South Carolina ad slam against Santorum seems so peripheral as to be cranky and kind of goofy. These are words Paul does not want attached to his campaign.

Jon Huntsman Well, we’ll see. His platform is great, his delivery not so much. I guessed that finishing with 20% on Tuesday would have been his bright line for viability, although the prospect that Gingrich and Romney will obliterate each other in South Carolina makes Florida on Jan. 31 a tempting bet for him. It’s just possible that a fair number of moderate Republicans began to have second thoughts about Romney after his asinine line about firing people. If Huntsman can pick them up, he might have a leg up for the saner seniors in Florida. He shouldn’t make the same mistake in South Carolina that Santorum made in New Hampshire, however: it is a wing nut fever swamp, not conducive to Huntsman’s brand of moderation. He should skip it and head straight to Disney World.

If he does drop out, he can leave with his head high — he’s raised some important issues and introduced some good ideas in his campaign. He just may have a future in this business.

Mitt Romney — wow. We’re going to see if his firing line will become a sapping wound. It does, in the grand tradition of spectacular gaffes, serve to reinforce everyone’s worst impression of him: that he’s a robotic rich guy, out of touch with the real world. I’ll have more about this in my print column this week.

I’ve spent some amazing times in New Hampshire over the years, from Ronald Reagan’s “I paid for this microphone” moment to Bill Clinton’s flu-ridden comeback to Hillary Clinton’s tears. Romney’s flub will probably be the only thing I carry forward from the 2012 edition, which is metaphorically appropriate: New Hampshire was a sideshow this year. The real campaign lies ahead.