Mitt Romney is in a commanding position to be the Republican presidential nominee, and it’s very likely that he will still be in that position after tonight’s New Hampshire primary results. Romney leads in every poll, and, with a campaign infrastructure that dwarfs that of any other candidate, he’s sitting on a huge support cushion. But there are still reasons for nervousness among Romney’s supporters, and for fresh hope among his challengers.
If Romney scores a double-digit victory, along the lines predicted in the polls, there will be much talk of his unstoppable momentum. That’s what the Romney camp wants, because such prophesies are self-fulfilling: Party leaders in states holding upcoming primaries will rally around him, providing a buffer against any criticisms of his candidacy or record that might emerge.
If Romney wins, but with either an unimpressive percentage of the vote (anything under 30 percent) or a closer-than-expected margin, a different story will be told. It will go something like this: Mitt Romney continues to be the frontrunner, but the majority of Republicans continue to have doubts about him. Instead of his inevitability, voters, pundits, and fellow politicians will be speculating about his weaknesses, and how he might address them. Romney doesn’t want that.
Still, any sort of victory would be better than a defeat, which would be truly shocking and the only outcome likely to change the thinking about his status as the likeliest Republican standard-bearer.
Romney’s opponents, meanwhile, have agendas of their own – in many cases, agendas that have little to do with winning the White House this year.
Jon Huntsman, who has staked his entire future on New Hampshire, has to finish in second place in order to compete effectively in future primaries. A second-place finish would also establish the 51-year-old Huntsman as a credible candidate in future presidential races – either in 2016, if the Republicans lose this fall, or in 2020. Unlike the Democrats, who toss away losing presidential candidates like yesterday’s dinner, the Republicans almost always look favorably someone who’s run for president before. But he has to do well. Finishing second in New Hampshire would brand Huntsman as a rising star.
That’s not the likeliest outcome. Most polls have Texas Representative Ron Paul in second place, hoping to show that his brand of libertarian politics is gaining favor. He scored about 20 percent of the vote in Iowa, and that’s a useful threshold for judging his success in New Hampshire. If he’s at or above 20 percent, Republicans will continue to take him seriously enough to influence their party platform, and possibly to set up his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, to carry the family brand forward in future presidential contests. If he falls below 20 percent, he begins to seem like a fringe contender, an irritant rather than a force.
Also competing for second, but likely to finish lower, is former Senator Rick Santorum. A second-place finish in New Hampshire, following his near-win in Iowa, would establish Santorum as the prime alternative to Romney. A third- or fourth-place finish, with a double-digit percentage of the vote, would keep him going, with the expectation he’ll do better in more socially conservative states to come, such as South Carolina and Florida. Santorum has already achieved one of his goals: Restoring his political relevancy after his 18-point re-election defeat in Pennsylvania in 2006.
Newt Gingrich still aspires to be the nominee, but his chances are slipping fast. Failing that, he hopes to boost his image as an electric speaker and thinker, so as to have both a stronger voice in public affairs and a more lucrative lecture-and-book career. Gingrich is risking both outcomes by firing away at Romney’s business career, with a poor-loser spirit that many people already associate with Gingrich.
A low finish for Gingrich would move him closer to oblivion, where he might find a debating partner in Texas Governor Rick Perry, who’s barely competing anymore.
Peter S. Canellos is the Editor of the Globe’s Editorial page.