New Hampshire and the battle for second place

at 02:03 PM ET, 01/06/2012

Mitt Romney is going to win the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday.

Talk to any semi-knowledgeable political operative in the state or look at any semi-decent poll on the race and that reality becomes clear within seconds.

Given that, the real race to watch in the Granite State is for second place — a battle that, according to conversations with a variety of operatives in the state, is likely to come down to two men: Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.

Each man has a case to make.

Of the two, Paul has the more committed support. Much like in Iowa, Paul has a committed core of at least 15 percent who will turn out to vote for him under any conditions.

His messaging — less government, period — is also a good fit for a state whose motto is “Live Free or Die” and that has neither a sales tax nor a property tax.

And, the fact that registered independents can, and if history is any indication, will vote next Tuesday should also bolster Paul who is a popular figure among a segment of voters who don’t naturally identify with either party.

The case for Santorum boils down to a single word: momentum. Santorum is, without question, the momentum candidate coming off his surprisingly strong second place showing — he lost to Romney by 8 votes — in the Iowa caucuses.

As we have written many times before, voters — and people in general — like to be with the “hot” candidate and that’s Santorum.

There’s an outside shot that neither Paul nor Santorum claims the runner-up prize in New Hampshire, however, with former Utah governor Jon Huntsman the most mentioned party-crasher.

Working for Huntsman is the fact that he skipped Iowa to concentrate all of his campaigning time on New Hampshire and that his super PAC is spending upwards of $600,000 on television ads this week promoting his candidacy.

Working against him is that Romney has locked up tight the establishment Republican vote in the state and Huntsman’s record and rhetoric doesn’t seem likely to win over tea party types.

Below are our rankings of the candidates likely order of finish in New Hampshire next Tuesday. The number one ranked candidate is the most likely to win. If you don’t get that, you may be need to ensure your brain stem is connected to your spine.

Agree with our rankings? Disagree? The comments section awaits. To the Line!

6. Rick Perry: After seeming ready to leave the race following a fifth place finish in Iowa, the Texas governor reversed course and decided to stick it out. But he didn’t rethink his decision to skip New Hampshire to focus full time on South Carolina. New Hampshire voters have never really bought into Perry. The only question is whether he outperforms former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer who has spent lots of time in the Granite State since launching his quixotic presidential bid.

5. Newt Gingrich: The former House Speaker may well have a role to play in New Hampshire but it won’t be as a winner. In the wake of his disappointing showing in Iowa, Gingrich promised a full-scale assault on Romney. His first New Hampshire TV ad does hit the former Massachusetts governor but it’s far from sharply negative. And, Gingrich seems content to spray his discontent around — attacking Santorum as a “junior partner”during their time together in Congress, for example. If Gingrich finishes outside the top three in New Hampshire, he will come under pressure from conservatives to step aside and unite behind a more viable Romney alternative.

4. Jon Huntsman: If he can’t make it here, he can’t make it anywhere. Despite all of the time Huntsman has spent in the state and all of the money his super PAC has spent on television in the state, the former Utah governor isn’t moving up fast enough. The latest tracking poll from Suffolk University shows Huntsman at just eight percent, well behind even the likes of Paul and Santorum much less Romney. New Hampshire could break late — as Iowa did — and there’s no question that Huntsman has spent the most time working the state. But, if New Hampshire voters haven’t bought into Huntsman yet, what will make them decide now is the time?

3. Rick Santorum: Second place is Santorum’s goal and it’s absolutely possible given his rapid rise since Iowa. Santorum stood at 11 percent in the latest Suffolk tracking numbers — nearly quadruple the three percent he had in the survey prior to the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday. New Hampshire is not typically the place where candidates who put social conservatism first prosper, however, and Santorum has very little time to turn his momentum into votes.

2. Ron Paul: Paul will almost certainly get 15 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote. (Suffolk has him at 17 percent right now.) The question is how much he can grow beyond that hardcore base. In 2008, Paul got 18,308 votes in New Hampshire, which put him in fifth place. He must more than double that total if he wants to finish second.

1. Mitt Romney: Romney’s only real competition in New Hampshire is the expectations game. He is currently at around 40 percent in the Suffolk tracking poll but most observers think he will drop somewhat from that total as Santorum gets going and Huntsman makes a final push. Romney’s benchmark may be the 37 percent that Arizona Sen. John McCain won in New Hampshire in 2008. (Romney took 31 percent of the vote that year.) Margins matter too. If Romney wins by 10+ points over his nearest competitor, he’s likely to enjoy a bump of momentum heading into South Carolina. If it’s closer than that, South Carolina could be a major fight.

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