As Romney Claims New Hampshire, the GOP Comes to Grips with His Inevitability

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Mitt Romney greets supporters in an overflow room Jan. 10, 2012 in Manchester, New Hampshire, after seizing a second victory in his fight to be the Republican presidential nominee.

New Hampshire voters are famously fickle. They venture out on cold January mornings to shake a candidate’s hand, look him in the eye and judge the mettle of the man, polls and pundits be damned. Four years ago, they shrugged off Barack Obama’s call for change and answered Hillary Clinton’s teary appeal, setting up the epic six-month nomination struggle that followed. In 2000, they spurned Bush the heir for McCain the upstart. They dumped Dole for Buchanan in ’96. New Hampshire is where conventional wisdom goes to die at the hands of flinty Northeastern sensibility. Except when it doesn’t.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, claiming 39% of the vote in a widely anticipated rout that at long last focused the GOP’s schizophrenic nominating contest on its protagonist. Ron Paul, the libertarian septuagenarian with a Bieberish fan base, took a strong second with 23%, reaffirming his rising influence in the GOP. Jon Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China who focused his campaign almost solely on the Granite State, notched 17% to come in third, quickening his campaign’s faint pulse, if only briefly. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich matched his sub-par Iowa finish in fourth, while Rick Santorum dropped to a disappointing fifth.

But the story of the New Hampshire campaign’s final hours, and of the 11 days that remain before South Carolina’s bloody contest, is really about the front runner. Romney is no mere lap-leader. He’s the first non-incumbent Republican in modern history to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. His finances, staff and establishment backing are in sixth gear. As 500,000 volunteer phone calls, 75,000 home visits and 35,000 yard signs nitrous-boosted him to victory on Tuesday, the Republican party awoke to the reality that the nomination is very nearly his.

(MORE: New Hampshire Primary Day: Big Expectations, Little Drama)

Almost every word of Romney’s victory speech Tuesday night could have been delivered at the Tampa convention that will officially crown the Republican nominee in August. “The President has run out of ideas. Now he’s running out of excuses,” Romney said. “This President puts his faith in government. We put our faith in the American people.” New Hampshire was in his rearview. This was pure general-election fuel, high octane stuff. “Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial,” he said. And then, in a blink-and-you-missed-it moment, came a dig at his so-called competition. “And the last few days we’ve seen desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our Party and for our nation.” But without skipping a beat, the front runner was back on Obama. “This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy.”

No one knows more about the bitter politics of envy this week than Newt Gingrich. He tried to set outlandish expectations for Romney on Tuesday, pegging a win for his rival at nothing less than 50% of the vote while downplaying the importance of his own finish. When CNN broadcast news of Romney’s victory across the TV screens at Newt HQ on Tuesday, Wolf Blitzer stayed on mute. Gingrich’s speech at the end of the night was a subdued call to elect a Republican “spokesman” in Reagan’s mold. “This campaign is going to go on to South Carolina,” he said, without sounding particularly thrilled about it. His supporters tried to put a happy face on it. “I think he had a respectable showing,” said Stephen Stepanek, a New Hampshire state house member from Amherst. “We’ll see how Mitt does when people really start looking at his record.”

(PHOTOS: The Road to New Hampshire: The Primary Campaign’s Final Days in Photos)

Before Gingich’s speech, things were different. Soured by the negative ads that Romney’s allies used to scuttle his candidacy in Iowa, Gingrich had resorted to a vicious counter-campaign. He hit Romney for timid centrism, a “pro-abortion” agenda, untrustworthiness, and most of all his record at private equity firm Bain Capital — which has suddenly, after months of media attention squandered on the GOP’s shiniest objects, become the central issue of the race. Romney sustained a self-inflicted wound on Monday with an ineptly phrased wish for customers to be able to choose freely between insurance plans. “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” he said. Taken out of context, it fits neatly into the caricature of a wicked capitalist that his rivals now hope to sketch. Gingrich held it up as proof positive of Romney’s dim chances of beating President Obama, a notion unsupported by any polling. After securing a $5 million check from billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich backers bought up $3.4 million of airtime in South Carolina and rights to a documentary that casts Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital as corporate looting at its most ruthless.

Romney’s dominance in New Hampshire had inspired other rivals to pick up the spoiler’s banner. “Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs,” Huntsman quipped this week. His candidacy, despite a solid third-place finish on Tuesday and a remarkably peppy primary night speech, faces huge challenges after New Hampshire. Huntsman has spent little time in any other state, polls in the single digits in just about all of them and has little money with which to dig himself out. His greatest remaining resource is the backing of a well-funded political action committee, which seems as eager to soil Romney as it is to aid Huntsman. Rick Perry, whose fading campaign managed less than 1% of the vote Tuesday, joined in too. “Allowing these companies to come in and loot people’s jobs, loot their pensions, loot their ability to take care of their families,” he said in reference to Bain, “I will suggest they’re just vultures.”

Santorum’s fifth-place finish marked a miscalculation. High on Iowa corn syrup, his campaign decided against skipping New Hampshire for South Carolina, where he hopes support among social conservatives can still gather behind him to help wrest the nomination form Romney’s grasp. “It’s gonna be bloody,” one adviser said. But after a series of confrontational campaign stops in New Hampshire, the former Pennsylvania Senator came away with relatively few votes to show for the trip and uncertain prospects ahead. “We can win this race,” he said Tuesday night, as if he needed to remind his supporters of the fact. “We have an opportunity in this race to be the true conservative.” Romney went unmentioned, but loomed large.

Paul is the only one who seems unfazed. “We urge Ron Paul’s opponents who have been unsuccessfully trying to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney to unite by getting out of the race and uniting behind Paul’s candidacy,” spokesman Jesse Benton said Tuesday night. “We’re nibbling at his heels,” Paul yelled in a boisterous speech that followed Romney’s. But Paul is largely playing for delegates and a bigger platform for his ideas. “He wins every single time, even if it’s not the popular vote,” said Robin Caine, a supporter who attended Paul’s watch party Tuesday night. “He’s never been more popular.” That’s Paul’s game.

The rest of the field’s realignment to attack Romney has thrown the Republican Party into self doubt. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol wrote a soul-searching column debating the merits of attacking Romney and his days at Bain. “Newt is using the language of the Left in going after Romney on Bain Capital,” fretted conservative radio titan Rush Limbaugh. “That makes me uncomfortable.” And South Carolina conservative bannerman Senator Jim DeMint said Tuesday night that he was “concerned about the few Republicans who have criticized some of what I consider free market principles here.” He then predicted Romney would win his state, where the last narrow chance of an upset lies.

The conventional wisdom has been confirmed. Romney is winning. And astonishingly, Republicans are only just now coming to grips with it.

With Alex Altman and Katy Steinmetz / Manchester