Does the New Hampshire primary matter?

at 11:01 AM ET, 01/02/2012

For months, the political world has debated whether the Iowa caucuses will matter when it comes to selecting the Republican presidential nominee. But, with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney now the frontrunner in tomorrow’s caucus vote, another question is worth asking: Will the New Hampshire primary matter?


Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney smiles as he is introduced during his campaign stop at the Merrimack VFW Post in Merrimack, New Hampshire December 30, 2011. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
New Hampshire, just in case you have been living on another planet for the past six months or so, will vote a week from tomorrow — the first primary of the GOP presidential nomination fight.

And, while the Granite State has been at the heart of the recent nomination fights — think the Clinton comeback in 2008 and the McCain upset in 2000 — a number of factors may be conspiring to diminish the importance of the state.

First and foremost, Romney has been running at the front of the pack in New Hampshire for the better part of the last two years and, if anything, is getting stronger as the vote nears.

A Suffolk University poll released Sunday night showed Romney way out in front with 41 percent followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 15 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 11 percent. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who is skipping Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, received 9 percent.

If Romney wins Iowa, the momentum from that somewhat-unexpected victory would make it next-to-impossible for any candidate to come close to beating him in the Granite State.

Recognizing that reality, Romney’s rivals seem to be doing all they can to downplay New Hampshire. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is headed to South Carolina, which votes on Jan. 21, after the Iowa caucuses. Gingrich has said South Carolina is the place he absolutely needs to win. (Of course, Gingrich might feel pressure to play more aggressively in New Hampshire given that the Union-Leader newspaper has endorsed him.)

And, it’s hard to to imagine former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum choosing to faceoff against Romney in New Hampshire rather than heading directly to South Carolina and its large evangelical population. (In the Suffolk poll, Santorum took just 3 percent in New Hampshire.)

Romney, of course, will do everything he can to make New Hampshire matter. And, it’s worth noting that if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire he will be the first non incumbent Republican to pull off that feat in modern presidential history.

“If the others don’t slow him up here, they risk him getting some real momentum,” said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire operative who is helping Romney in the state. “Equally, New Hampshire’s reputation for being quirky and unpredictable and volatile argues that funny things can happen here at the end and you want to be around in case we spring a leak.”

Rath also rightly notes that there will be nationally televised debates on Jan. 7 (ABC) and Jan. 8 (NBC) in New Hampshire so it makes logistical sense for the candidates to spend time in the state over the next eight days.

The calculation for everyone not named Romney (or Huntsman) is whether it’s worth spending precious dollars — southern New Hampshire is covered by the very pricey Boston media market — in a state that is just not winnable when South Carolina, which has never been a friendly place for Romney, awaits.

Mike Dennehy, who ran McCain’s two successful campaign in the Granite State but is not aligned with any of the current candidates, insisted that playing in New Hampshire is still a smart move for the non-Romneys.

“Given [Romney’s] now-20 point lead, if another candidate can get something going and come in only 10 points behind, then that person should have some steam headed out of New Hampshire to South Carolina,” explained Dennehy. “Second place ends up being the gold for the New Hampshire primary this year.”

The question is whether anyone goes for that gold — see what we did there? — in eight days time.

 
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