MANCHESTER, N.H. -- When Wednesday dawns, the political world that reigned for weeks on Iowa will suddenly lurch to New Hampshire. And regardless of what happened the night before, everyone will ask the same question: Can anyone beat Mitt Romney here?
Probably not. The ex-governor of neighboring Massachusetts has made the Granite State his campaign’s centerpiece, lavishing it with attention and building an on-the-ground operation second to none. And the state’s voters have rewarded him by making Romney their indisputable front-runner –- he has sat atop polls in the state for the last year, receiving 43 percent support Suffolk University poll released Tuesday. His closest rival, Rep. Ron Paul, earned just 17 percent.
“With all due respect to the effort everyone else has made and the talent they’ve attracted, unless Romney makes major mishap or something comes out that really turns people off, I think he’s really safe,” said New Hampshire GOP Chairman Wayne MacDonald, who is staying neutral in the race.
Romney’s seemingly inevitable victory is not the primary’s only story line. The state’s Republicans could decide the fate of a handful of other candidates –- among them Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum –- and help determine whether Romney will ever face a sustainable challenge from the party’s conservative wing. But Romney’s strength in New Hampshire will be the overarching theme for a week of fervent campaigning.
The state’s fiscally focused electorate –- only 23 percent identified as evangelicals, according to exit polls from the state’s 2008 primary –- makes it more ideologically in sync with the business-friendly Romney. And perhaps because of that, the candidate’s focus on New Hampshire never wavered, unlike the months of ambivalence he showed about Iowa before ultimately deciding to go all in there.
“Just like John McCain did between 2000 and 208, Governor Romney spent a lot of time here,” said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member who hasn’t endorsed a candidate. “And virtually every candidate for the state Senate, or country sheriff, or legislator who wanted Mitt Romney to campaign for them got that kind of attention. That has paid huge dividends.”
His strength is unlikely to fade even if he has a disappointing finish in Iowa. New Hampshire voters have rarely let their Midwest brethren decisively influence their decisions –- it’s partly why no Republican presidential candidate has ever won the primary’s first two contests back-to-back.
But the results in Iowa could still have a big impact on other candidates -- in particular, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. If the suddenly popular ex-lawmaker can translate his rise in the polls to a strong finish on Tuesday, he’ll still have to become the race’s long-sought-after anti-Romney candidate. Another strong finish in New Hampshire could solidify the role for him.
And even as he campaigned diligently in Iowa, Santorum didn’t neglect New Hampshire. Republicans say they have been impressed by the organization he has built in the Granite State that, while not as formidable as Romney’s, Paul’s, or even Huntsman’s, is impressive for an underfunded unit. His effort there is aided by the presence of his campaign manager, Mike Biundo, a native who cut his teeth in the state’s politics.
He also benefits from the decision of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann to skip the New Hampshire primary and campaign in South Carolina instead –- moves that could help him consolidate support of the party’s conservative wings.
“Santorum could come here on the heels of a good finish in Iowa and probably find it difficult to overcome Romney,” said Duprey. “But a good strong finish here would give real boost heading into South Carolina.”
Next week’s primary is also the pivotal moment in Huntsman’s campaign, which ignored Iowa while barnstorming New Hampshire for months. He stood in third place in the Suffolk University poll, at 9 percent, trailing Romney and Paul. He has campaigned as hard personally in the state as anyone in the field; by the time the other candidates arrive on Wednesday, he would have held 150 public events in the state, officials on his campaign say.
In an interview with National Journal, he said he is counting on that robust showing of retail politics and a message that emphasizes a moderate tone to sway voters.
“I think a day or two after Iowa, everything is forgotten,” Huntsman said. “And then the spotlight is on New Hampshire.”
Ron Fournier contributed