As the final votes were being tabulated in last night’s New Hampshire Republican primary, it appears that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the evening’s clear winner, came close to achieving his needed benchmark as he garnered nearly 40 percent of the total vote. As polling predicted, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX-14) was a strong second with just under 23 percent.
The other major story line, however, focused again on former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But this time, it was his failure to score big in New Hampshire after forcing Romney into a virtual tie last week in Iowa. Santorum was fighting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for fourth place, and failed to crack double-digits. Santorum needed a strong finish in New Hampshire to propel him into serious contention for the upcoming South Carolina primary on Jan. 21. A second-place finish in New Hampshire, followed by a win in the Palmetto State, could have made Santorum the conservative alternative to Romney, thus turning the campaign into a legitimate horse race. Now it appears it is Romney who will have the momentum as the candidates head south.
A victory in South Carolina, heretofore one of Mr. Romney’s weakest states, would launch him into Florida 10 days later as the undisputed GOP leader. Taking first in the Sunshine State followed by an almost certain win at the Nevada Caucuses on Feb. 4 would allow Romney to sweep the early states, thereby virtually crowning him as the nominee. At that point, the general election would unofficially begin.
For his part, Mr. Romney is already portraying himself as the nominee. He used his New Hampshire victory speech as a forum to begin developing a clear contrast between himself and President Obama. With still no clear alternative candidate rising above the remaining contenders, it may not be too early for him to begin laying such general election ground work. It is doubtful that any one of the other Republicans can now generate enough momentum to establish the proper position to effectively battle the former governor. South Carolina may now represent the last chance for another candidate to score an upset. Failing to do so lessens the chance of anyone but Romney winning Florida even more.
Turnout for the Republican contest was up from 2008, but not substantially so. When all votes are counted, the total turnout will likely break 247,000 cast ballots, about a 5 percent increase from just under 235,000 votes that were cast four years ago. Mr. Romney’s 92,000-plus votes also exceeded ’08 winner John McCain’s 88,571. While Romney is almost touching the 40 percent mark, by comparison, McCain scored 37.7 percent in 2008.
As for Jon Huntsman, who scored a third-place finish in New Hampshire, I’ll refer you to my post yesterday, John Huntsman: Mr. Irrelevant.