1. Mitt Romney. It’s a foregone conclusion that Mitt Romney will win New Hampshire. The question is, by how much and what will the margin of victory say about his candidacy? A strong showing would be in the high 30s to low 40s. Less than 32 or so, and the narrative continues that he’s a weak front-runner limping out of his own back yard, and ripe for serious challenge as the primary heads south. Under 30 percent and there’s blood in the water.
2. Who finishes in second? Jon Huntsman badly needs a strong second place finish to establish some relevance in the campaign. Most polls here have Ron Paul in second, from 14 to 29 points behind Romney, with either Huntsman or someone else in third. Second place punches a ticket for Huntsman to continue on as a shadow Romney, but with less campaign savvy and a better actual record as governor. He could make a stand in Florida, especially if someone beats Romney in South Carolina and scrambles the race. Third place, especially a weak third or even fourth, and it may be time for him to pack it in. As for Paul, there has been no evidence that he is surging in New Hampshire, and some evidence that he may be fading since finishing third in Iowa. That was a caucus that favored Paul’s campaign style, New Hampshire is a more straightforward vote. He is retiring from Congress and has money to burn, but even he doesn’t see himself actually winning the presidency. If he finishes poorly in New Hampshire, what does he do? His activists have been joining forces with the occupy protesters in New Hampshire, pestering other candidates on the campaign trail.
3. The impact of the revenge candidacy. Negative campaigning works, and New Hampshire has seen its share on TV ads and in stump speeches. Newt Gingrich has a glint in his eye lately after taking a pounding in Iowa, and he and his allied super PACs have taken after “Massachusetts moderate” Mitt Romney, not to win here but looking ahead toward the next contest. The negativity won’t defeat Romney here, but may expose him in the more conservative South Carolina, where his tax hikes and RomneyCare may turn voters off. But what will it do to Gingrich’s own candidacy?
4. The Santorum swing. Will Rick Santorum’s surge to a tie in Iowa give him legs to become a real force in his own right? Or will New Hampshire render him a regional, one-hit wonder candidate? Two narratives have developed about the Santorum candidacy since Iowa. One, that he is becoming the default conservative, family-oriented non-Romney candidate after Rick Perry’s problems and Newt Gingrich’s collapse. Many voters would like to combine Perry’s record with Gingrich’s debating skill, but obviously can’t, so Santorum is soaking up support. But the second narrative casts him as a “big government conservative” very much in the mold of the pre-2006 Republicans who frittered away Congress by spending too much and giving away their credibility as the party of fiscal discipline. Both narratives strike me as true. The question is, which narrative will New Hampshire reinforce?
5. Going South. The Republican Party’s base is not in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in places like South Carolina and across the south to Texas. The primary should be entering Rick Perry country, but the polls don’t reflect that at this point. As we saw in Iowa, fortunes can change swiftly. New Hampshire won’t help him directly but might hurt Romney enough to allow Perry, Santorum, Gingrich or Huntsman to get some traction. For his part, Perry has been talking up the courage displayed at the Battle of the Alamo in recent campaign stops, but the better Texas analogy is San Jacinto. The Texians were annihilated at the Alamo on March 6, 1836, but regrouped under Sam Houston and shocked the world by defeating the “Napoleon of the West” just a few weeks later at San Jacinto. Perry’s back surgery led to poor early debates, but he was as fit as ever when I interviewed him in Iowa and has run off a string of better performances. He is making a stand down south. He still has something only one other candidate in the field has: A strong conservative record as chief executive of a state government. Will things break for him? That’s not the way to bet, but history is full of surprise twists. Santa Anna didn’t think much of Sam Houston until he found himself surrendering to him.