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Post Partisan
Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 01/10/2012

In New Hampshire, a Huntsman surge? A Romney slide?


Today’s the day when Mitt Romney’s entire strategy for becoming president starts coming together — or doesn’t. He built New Hampshire to be a fortress, protecting his chances if he did poorly in Iowa (where he ended up doing just fine) and sending him off strong to South Carolina, which votes next.

The fortress seems to be holding, partly because Romney’s opponents waited until two days before the primary to go on the attack, partly because this is a state where there does seem to be some genuine affection for Romney, and partly because he built such a big lead early.

But the evidence of the polls suggests that Romney lost rather than gained ground in the course of the week, and the campaign certainly closed in a less than optimal way for him. Under attack in Sunday’s debate, Romney’s replies lacked authenticity, as my colleague Dan Balz noted in an excellent analysis. Newt Gingrich’s call on Romney to stop offering “pious baloney” is the keeper sound bite of this battle. And to have to spend Monday explaining the context of his “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me” comment was hardly the ideal way for Romney to spend the final hours of the campaign.

That’s why the New Hampshire primary did President Obama more good than it did any of the Republican candidates. Much of the rest of the news on Monday was dominated by discussion of a film Gingrich’s Super PAC will be pushing that is highly critical of Bain Capital, Romney’s company that made him rich. This will be a core Obama attack line for the rest of the year.

So how close does Romney get to 30 percent – or does he even drop below 30, which would be counted as a defeat for him? The final polling suggests that Romney will get well above that. If anything good happened to Romney at the end, it’s that expectations for him dropped. So a win in, say, the 33 percent range will look better tonight than it would have a few days ago.

There’s a lot of talk of a surge to Jon Huntsman. I buy into the idea, but freely concede that (1.) a lot of non-Republican commentators are looking for such a surge, so the wish could be the father to the thought; and (2.) the polls are, at best, ambiguous in supporting the Huntsman surge theory.

 My primary reason for thinking that the mini-surge is real arises from the decision of the Romney campaign to go after Huntsman at the end. The Romney camp wheeled out Chris Christie, their nuclear weapon, to go after Huntsman. The Romney folks wouldn’t waste Christie on an unnecessary errand.

I also think that Huntsman’s debate moment defending his service as President Obama’s Ambassador to China was well-timed to push independent voters (the “undeclared,” as New Hampshire folks call them) to pick up a Republican ballot today and cast a Huntsman protest vote. Huntsman has been talking of the importance of putting “country first,” an echo of John McCain’s 2008 slogan — McCain still has an important following here — and hitting Romney on the issue was a good idea. “This nation is divided . . . because of attitudes like that,” Huntsman said, to applause, when Romney questioned Huntsman for taking a post under Obama.

It is purely anecdotal, but I ran into several voters during a Huntsman visit to Crosby’s Baker here Monday who said the debate moment galvanized them. “I just made up my mind finally,” said Tom Stawasz, a former state Senator who came out to cheer Huntsman at Crosby’s. It was Huntsman’s declaration of “America first,” as Stawasz translated the Utah Governor’s “country first” remarks, that tipped the balance. Another voter carrying a Huntsman sign told a reporter: “This country needs someone who can pull it together, not tear it apart.” And State Rep. Dick Drisko, a Huntsman supporter, said he thought independents would flock to Huntsman in the end.

All that said, Ron Paul still has an iron core of support. His voters will turn out today and the polls still suggested as Election Day dawned that Paul was running second. On this one, I am going with my Huntsman intuition more than hard data.

Rick Santorum, I think, missed an opportunity to break through, getting lost in his Socratic dialogues with his critics in the days after his Iowa breakthrough. He closed better, going back to some of his working class hero themes, and he’ll certainly go on to South Carolina. But I think he had a chance to do much better than he is likely to do tonight.

Newt Gingrich is having a blast. He was furious at how the attacks by Romney’s super PAC undermined him in Iowa, and now it’s payback time. Gingrich was in excellent spirits when I caught up with him Monday at a Rotary Club meeting in Hudson. He will not win himself, but he is trying hard to make the contest safe for an alternative to Romney.

So New Hampshire will be a paradox: Romney’s firewall will hold, yet the primary itself left him at least slightly wounded. And, to pile one more paradox onto the pile, there’s also this: If at least three of Romney’s foes go into South Carolina to fight him, they may split the vote in a way that allows Romney to win again.

The bottom line so far: Romney is someone who can definitely be defeated, but it’s not at all clear than any of the opponents he actually has in these primaries can defeat him.

By  |  12:00 PM ET, 01/10/2012

 
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