MITT ROMNEY got what he needed from his second-home state of New Hampshire last night. It wasn’t a rocket boost into the stratosphere, but neither was it a lackluster victory that will feed doubts about him. Romney bettered John McCain’s 2008 tally of about 37 percent to post a solid, campaign-enhancing win.
After the stumbles of the last few days, that had to be a giant relief for the Romney campaign. Equally good news for Romney is that New Hampshire did not anoint a consensus challenger for anti-Romney voters to rally behind.
Despite his strong number-two finish, Ron Paul simply won’t be a real rival for the Republican nomination. Paul is more a shield separating Romney from a more plausible long-term rival than a genuine threat in and of himself. Last night, that more plausible rival did not emerge.
Certainly Jon Huntsman’s New Hampshire hopes weren’t borne out. He nevertheless vowed to go on to South Carolina. Although anything is possible in this topsy-turvy year, it’s hard to see how a third-place finish in a state he’d focused almost exclusively on does the trick. New Hampshire also took the bloom off Rick Santorum’s close second in Iowa. That didn’t even translate into third in New Hampshire, but rather left Santorum battling with Newt Gingrich for fourth.
Still, this contest will and should continue. Both Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry, who had a dismal showing last night, have signaled that they intend to make Romney’s jobs record at Bain Capital an issue in South Carolina. Romney scolded them for that last night, noting that “some desperate Republicans’’ were joining President Obama in putting “free enterprise on trial.’’ That formulation is as silly as it is self-serving. In fact, this is a debate the Republican Party needs to have.
Perhaps Romney will persuade voters that he was an admirable businessman who made a big contribution to the economy. Perhaps not. But this much is certain. If the Republicans don’t examine Romney’s Bain jobs record in the primaries, Democrats will make sure that voters will in the general election.