Guest Column: Why New Hampshire matters

Alexander Chen

Tuesday’s photo finish in Iowa cemented Rick Santorum’s emergence as the latest anti-Romney candidate in the GOP race. Several candidates are now campaigning in New Hampshire, a tiny New England state with a contrarian streak. With Romney cruising in the polls and only 12 delegates at stake, HPR alum Alex Burns recently wrote that next Tuesday’s contest would not be important, something most GOP contenders are likely to reiterate. Nevertheless, the first-in-the-nation primary will have key implications for the Republican nomination contest, and cannot be ignored. Here are three storylines I’ll be following:

The Gingrich Factor

Blitzed by Romney’s Restore our Future super-PAC and quixotic Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the former Speaker’s political standing fell precipitously and Gingrich came away soundly defeated in Iowa. But the wounded Gingrich is furious, and his concession speech was anything but conciliatory. He has effectively taken a berserker posture, implicitly promising to take Romney down at any cost and proposing a conservative alliance between himself, Perry and Santorum.

Unlike Perry and Santorum though, Gingrich has a strong ally in the Granite State: New Hampshire Union Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid. McQuaid, whose paper endorsed Gingrich late last year, is a titan in NH conservative circles. He eviscerated Romney four years ago, and has already hammered the former Massachusetts governor for being another “squishy-moderate Republican”.

Meanwhile, Gingrich’s pledge to maintain a positive campaign has been thrown out the window. His campaign is already blanketing the state with television and newspaper ads attempting to contrast himself with Romney. Furthermore, look for Gingrich to broadside Romney in two debates this weekend. Gingrich’s attacks could very well diminish Romney’s final performance here, gift-wrapping a present to Santorum.

Can Huntsman Survive?

The Huntsman campaign has stumbled badly over the past few months; his service to the Obama administration as Ambassador to China hurt his standing with rank and file Republicans, and the media certainly did not help by anointing him as the “moderate” in the race. His campaign narrative emphasizing bipartisanship disastrously misread the mood of the GOP electorate, which wanted someone to pugnaciously take on Obama.

The NH electorate is tailor-made for someone like Huntsman: state laws allow the independents and Democrats whose votes Huntsman is banking on to vote in the primary, and the state lacks a strong social conservative presence. He has put more time into New Hampshire than any other candidate, holding hundreds of events and bypassing other states. However, he trails Romney by approximately 30 percentage points in recent polling. Huntsman’s limited fundraising will assuredly dry up without a strong showing here, and should he poll a distant third or fourth behind Romney and Paul, his campaign will likely end.

Santorum’s Staying Power

Santorum’s emphasis on family values won him the endorsement of Iowa heavy hitter Bob Vander Plaats, whose backing provided a critical conservative seal of approval. However, New Hampshire is considerably less religious than Iowa, and Santorum’s economic populism (for example, he proposes eliminating the corporate tax entirely for manufacturers) may not resonate here.

Nevertheless, for Santorum to demonstrate his viability as a national candidate, he must exceed expectations. No Republican has won the nomination in the past half-century without placing first or second in New Hampshire. Given that Romney’s expectations for the state are stratospheric, a strong second or third place finish for Santorum would dominate the post-primary narrative and position him to consolidate the anti-Romney vote in South Carolina. A distant finish, coupled with Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich’s continued presence in the race, would likely relegate Santorum as perhaps the final anti-Romney to emerge.

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Harvard Political Review, Harvard U. via UWIRE