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Election Watch: Romney Marches On

By / 1.11.2012

After a campaign often described as “boring,” a New Hampshire Republican electorate showing no great signs of excitement performed its expected duty on January 10, giving Mitt Romney a solid win and making it increasingly difficult to see a path to the nomination for anyone else.

Romney’s 39 percent of the vote in New Hampshire was about what the polls had long predicted, but some last-minute turbulence in surveys and speculation that Paul or even Huntsman could pull an upset reset expectations nicely for Mitt, making his comfortable win look formidable. Paul’s 23 percent of the vote was also pretty predictable, and now that his two best states are behind him, we can expect his campaign to focus on small caucus states where it’s easy to pack rooms. Huntsman, having staked his entire campaign on a New Hampshire breakthrough, campaigning virtually nowhere else, may talk bravely of his third-place (17 percent) finish as giving him a “Ticket to Ride” to later states, but it’s hard to see much of a constituency for his defy-the-Tea-Party campaign in more conservative parts of the country. But like everyone else persisting in this strange nomination contest, Huntsman can help prevent other candidates from consolidating the non-Romney vote, at least until the money runs out.

If there was any surprise in New Hampshire, it’s probably how poorly the “true conservative” candidates performed. Newt Gingrich, who had the coveted endorsement of the New Hampshire Union-Leader, narrowly finished fourth (with 10 percent) ahead of Iowa co-winner Rick Santorum (9 percent), who clearly did not get much of a “bounce.” Rick Perry made no pretense of campaigning in New Hampshire, but still, it’s a bit shocking to see this one-time bully-boy of the field finishing just ahead of Buddy Roemer, with less than one percent of the vote.

Now the campaign will quickly move to its crucial southern phase, with primaries in South Carolina on Saturday, January 21 and in Florida on January 31. Victories by Mitt Romney in both would pretty much wrap up the nomination for him, and the latest polls from South Carolina and Florida have shown him likely to do just that.

Indeed, at the moment the biggest threat to Romney’s candidacy isn’t so much a rival, but a line of attack by rivals that could easily carry over into the general election. A Super PAC (Winning the Future) supporting Newt Gingrich, and brandishing a $5 million contribution from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has produced a series of ads viscerally attacking Romney’s firm, Bain Capital, for killing jobs and companies in South Carolina. Somewhat more subtly, the ads also associate Romney with Wall Street malefactors, not the most popular people in the country right now. And there’s hardly a millisecond in the ad copy released so far that could not be used against Romney by pro-Obama forces later.

Given the destruction of Newt Gingrich’s front-running candidacy in Iowa by negative ads run by a pro-Romney Super PAC, this development is not terribly surprising, though the lack of inhibition with which both Gingrich and Rick Perry are pursuing the Bain attack line is interesting coming from conservatives who systematically oppose regulation of Wall Street. But the immediate question is whether Winning the Future will have a significant impact in South Carolina, where they have already bought $1.6 million in pre-primary TV ads and could buy more than double that figure.

The Palmetto State is clearly Rick Perry’s Last Hurrah, and right-wing opinion-leader Erick Erickson (at whose RedState annual meeting in South Carolina the Texan announced his candidacy back in August) reports that Perry’s South Carolina effort looks impressive. If so, it hasn’t shown up in the polls, where Perry is running consistently in the mid-single digits in the state. Hard-core anti-Romney conservatives in South Carolina seem evenly split between Gingrich and Santorum, and only if they begin to coalesce around a single candidate could the destructive work of Winning the Future bear fruit, other than in declining favorability ratings for Romney. The poohbah who could easily resolve the indecision among South Carolina conservatives, Sen. Jim DeMint, has said he does not intend to endorse anyone this cycle, and, moreover, has predicted Romney will win his state. There’s no reason at present to doubt he is right.

But without question, the assault on Bain Capital will be watched closely by Democrats, not just because it might hurt Mitt Romney, but because it will test the latent hostility of the voting public (even its most conservative segment) to some of those “wealth creators” Republicans are forever lionizing.

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey