Jon Huntsman Jr. dismissed Romney’s newfound support from Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), saying that “nobody cares” about his backing or any of the other high-level endorsements the former Massachusetts governor has received.
And Rick Santorum, who fell just eight votes short of beating Romney in Iowa, said in an e-mail to supporters that Romney is a “bland, boring career politician who will lose to Barack Obama.”
Romney, considered a heavy favorite to win Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire, sought to dominate the kickoff news coverage and further solidify his standing with GOP voters. He appeared at a midday town hall meeting with McCain to accept his endorsement.
“New Hampshire is the state that will catapult him to victory in a very short period of time,” said McCain, whose win in this state’s primary four years ago had that effect on him.
The focus on Romney came as one of the Republican field’s most vocal conservatives, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), announced that she was dropping out after her sixth-place finish in Iowa — further narrowing the group seeking to challenge Romney for the party mantle.
Another onetime challenger, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who finished fifth in Iowa despite spending more than any other candidate, appeared to have decided to soldier on. After returning home Wednesday night to reassess his candidacy, Perry tweeted his intention to head to South Carolina to campaign ahead of that state’s Jan. 21 primary.
After the all-consuming Iowa caucuses, the candidates began to focus on a broader and more complex playing field, with a competitive primary ahead in Florida, on Jan. 31, as well as South Carolina.
And although attacking Romney’s history of centrist positions may not hurt him much in New Hampshire, which is home to many middle-of-the-road Republicans and where independents can vote in the primary, the attacks could resonate in other states where the electorates are more conservative.
More than any rival besides Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who finished third in Iowa and has built a network of enthusiastic backers, Romney has the organization and resources to wage an extended national campaign. He has begun airing TV ads in Florida and South Carolina. McCain, a former fighter pilot and prisoner of war, is scheduled to campaign with Romney on Thursday in South Carolina, a military-heavy state where the senator can help boost the candidate’s stature.
Still, a closer-than-expected contest in New Hampshire could damage Romney’s ability to continue making the case to donors and GOP leaders that he is the inevitable nominee. And he must contend here with challenges from all directions, including Paul’s effort to court independents and the presence of Huntsman, who skipped Iowa and has been focusing solely on presenting himself to New Hampshire voters as an alternative to Romney.