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5 storylines to watch in the New Hampshire primary

at 04:58 PM ET, 01/10/2012

MANCHESTER, N.H. – Polls will close across New Hampshire in three hours time and we should start getting results (rubbing hands gleefully) shortly after that.

Need to while away the hours until the polls close and the Fix live chat goes, um, live? Us too! Below is a look at a few storylines to keep an eye on tonight as ballots get counted. Have storylines of your own we need to watch? The comments section awaits.


Voters voting in New Hampshire! (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

* Romney reality hits home: Assuming the former Massachusetts governor wins by double digits tonight — and, as we have written, he should — talk of him as the de facto nominee will become even more prevalent.

The simple fact is that if Romney does win New Hampshire, he will be the first non-incumbent Republican to win both Iowa and New Hampshire since the two states took their place at the front of the nominating calendar in 1976.

There is already the start of a rallying effect behind Romney going on within the party. American Crossroads, which is expected to be the dominant conservative outside organization in 2012, released a memo this afternoon aimed at dismissing the idea that Romney had a hard ceiling of 25 percent within the GOP.

That’s only the leading edge of what to expect in the next ten days if Romney wins convincingly tonight. And that will complicate efforts by anyone not named “Romney” to build momentum heading into South Carolina on Jan. 21. Of course, if Romney’s wins is judged to be insufficiently convincing...

* Huntsmentum?: As we wrote this morning, Huntsman has essentially staked his campaign on New Hampshire. And given that he’s virtually nonexistent in polling in South Carolina and Florida, his finish in the Granite State will either put him on the map or force him to fold.

The former Utah governor would probably get a pretty significant boost if he can finish second behind Romney and ahead of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). He appears to be in position to make that happen, and it would be a sign that his campaign has some life.

But New Hampshire’s electorate is far different than the upcoming primary states, and he HAS spent a ton of time here — factors likely to mitigate the Huntsman bounce. So the idea that a second-place finish would somehow be a huge victory for him is a little far-fetched.

If Huntsman does finish out of the money, it’s hard to see him going forward.

* The beginning of the end for Paul?: That race for second place has big implications for Paul too. Here’s why: In Iowa, Paul appeared primed for the win before a detailed examination of his record pushed him to a third-place finish. A similar thing could be happening in New Hampshire, where Paul had been at 20 percent or above in some polls, but seems to have settled in the high teens of late.

Does the increasing pressure on Paul begin to push him down in the polls? And does he return to the more traditional 10-to-15 percent of the vote that he took in the 2008 presidential race?

An argument can be made that such a development would begin to limit Paul’s impact on the debate in the Republican Party and hamper his plans to stay in the race for the long haul.

* Newt vs Rick (Santorum, that is): If the fight in South Carolina is fundamentally about trying to unite conservatives around a consensus candidate — and we believe it is — then the fight for fourth in New Hampshire could, weirdly, matter.

Neither former House Speaker Newt Gingrich nor former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum seems likely to sniff the top three.

But, if Santorum beats out Gingrich for fourth, it becomes far easier for him to make the case to South Carolina voters that he is the last viable conservative alternative to Romney. Ditto for Gingrich although that calculus is slightly more complicated by the fact that he finished a distant fourth in Iowa.

The worst case scenario for conservatives hoping to unite behind a non-Romney is a muddled result — Santorum 12 percent, Gingrich 11 percent, for example — that leaves both men with enough good news to carry on all the way through South Carolina.

* How independent?: Unlike Iowa where voters had to register as Republicans in order to participate in the caucuses, unaffiliated voters in New Hampshire can vote in either party’s primary without it affecting their independent status.

How many of them choose to pull a Republican ballot is a point of considerable discussion. In 2000, 42 percent of voters in the GOP primary identified as independents, according to exit polls; that number was 37 percent in 2008.

Look to independent-rich towns Hanover, Keene and Durham — all three are also college towns — for clues. If turnout in all three towns is high, it almost certainly means that independents are voting in big numbers — good news for Huntsman and Paul.

If the electorate is more traditionally Republican, then Romney, Santorum and Gingrich would be the beneficiaries.

 
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