Lessons from an Early Night in New Hampshire

Thoughts on a predictable Granite State primary that strengthened Mitt Romney's hand going into the coming South Carolina street fight.

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* It's not going to be that easy to stop this Mitt Romney train. In the frantic final days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, the attacks on Romney became more intense, and he made some memorable gaffes. Even his supporters seemed more loyal than enthused. But in the end, none of it mattered. With 39 percent of the vote, Romney hit or slightly exceeded expectations, and heads into South Carolina in commanding position -- no non-incumbent Republican has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire, and none have won the nomination without winning one of the two. Romney gave a convincing, self-assured victory speech -- like most politicians, he's better when he's feeling confident.

* Ron Paul overperformed. Most polls showed him getting between 15 and 20 percent of the vote; he finished with 23 percent, a significant showing that nearly tripled the 8 percent he got in 2008. If he continues to draw over 20 percent of the vote in the coming contests, Paul will remain a factor and a foil for Romney in the GOP dialogue.

* Jon Huntsman fell short. With 17 percent of the vote, he made huge strides in the last week of his shoe-leather, underdog campaign, winning over many independents and moderate Republicans with his "country first" pitch touting, of all things, his service in the Obama administration. But Huntsman was targeting a narrow swath of the electorate, and his wave didn't crest big enough to loft him into second. On Tuesday, he vowed to carry on to South Carolina, telling a packed bar in downtown Manchester he had a "ticket to ride." He has already released a schedule of South Carolina events starting Wednesday. But his appeal to the electorate there is even narrower; anything's possible, but it's hard to envision him getting much traction or playing much of a role beyond giving Romney trouble on his right flank as well as his left.

* No clear winner in the fight for fourth. As of 11 p.m., Newt Gingrich was less than 200 votes ahead of Rick Santorum and both were under 10 percent. It's hard to believe we're even talking about this: In a normal primary, who cares what order the fourth- and fifth-place candidates come in? But with all the campaigns looking ahead to South Carolina days before their time in New Hampshire ended, the faltering candidates could have used a surprise to boost them into position. As it is, Gingrich, Santorum and Rick Perry have competing claims on South Carolina's conservatives, with no clear advantage among them. Gingrich is well organized in the state and has a big-money super PAC behind him; Santorum is a subject of interest for his Iowa win; and Perry has come alive in the debates, found a populist voice criticizing Romney's "vulture capitalism," and spent the past week getting a head start in South Carolina. This, of course, is an ideal situation for Romney, who wants as many strong candidates splitting the vote as possible.

* South Carolina could still be interesting. A sage New Hampshire hand said the other day: "You've got to remember, this is not the last primary. It's the first primary." As tempting as it is to see New Hampshire as determinative, there are 11 days until the next contest, and a brutal air war is getting under way. Even if, as happened in New Hampshire, Romney comes out where he started, there should be plenty of twists and turns along the way.

Image credit: Getty Images/Emmanuel Dunand
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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