Manchester, NH—“Thank you, New Hampshire!” declared Mitt Romney. “Tonight, we’ve made history.”
Romney was talking about how he was the first Republican contender other than an incumbent president to win the Iowa caucuses (by eight votes) and the New Hampshire primary.
But he also made history of a more personal nature.
After forty-five years of trying, a Romney has finally won the first-primary state.
Mitt Romney’s dad, former Michigan Governor George Romney, crashed and burned on the 1968 New Hampshire Republican primary campaign trail. After suggesting that he had been “brainwashed” while on a fact-finding visit to Vietnam, George Romney didn’t even make it to the primary as a serious contender against eventual winner Richard Nixon.
Forty years later, Mitt Romney was the front-runner in the 2008 New Hampshire Republican primary race, until the voters decided they preferred Arizona Senator John McCain.
Now, in 2012, Mitt Romney has won a New Hampshire primary with roughly 39 percent of the vote. That was sixteen points better than Texas Congressman Ron Paul (who won 23 percent), and more than twenty points better than former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s 17 percent.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is now attacking Romney as a job-killing “looter” of American manufacturing industries was trailing far behind in fourth place, with the fading star of last week’s Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum, in fifth.
That sounds pretty good for Romney. But just as the vast majority of Iowa caucus-goers (75 percent) voted for anybody but Romney, so the vast majority of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire—a state where he virtually resides, has run twice and had the support of almost all of the old-line party restablishment—voted for anybody but Romney.
Republicans still don’t love this guy.
Unfortunately, New Hampshire did not leave them with many options.
Paul’s finish was credible. It was certainly enough to carry his populist campaign forward—through as many Republican primaries and caucuses as he wants to run in and and potentially as a Libertarian or independent candidate in the fall.
Huntsman’s finish was credible as well—“third place is a ticket to ride,” he declared. But his finish was well short of the second-place “surprise” he was hoping for.
Romney, Paul and Huntsman have their tickets out of New Hampshire.
They’re all headed for the January 21 primary in South Carolina.
But so, too, is Gingrich, whose ticket is being paid for by a Las Vegas billionaire. A $5 million donation to the former House Speaker’s Super PAC guarantees that Gingrich can keep running South Carolina television ads attacking Romney as a greedy “looter” of American businesses.
Those ads, and those themes, threaten Romney. But they also provide the “corporations are people” candidate with an opportunity to unite his corporatist party.
He addressed the threat in his New Hampshire “victory speech.
The winner scored Gingrich and others who have begun to attack his robber-baron record with Bain Capitol.
“President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him,” declared Romney. “This is such a mistake for our Party and for our nation. This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success. In these difficult times, we cannot abandon the core values that define us as unique—We are One Nation, Under God.”
While the “greed-is-good” may not qualify in most American’s minds as one of the country’s “core values,” the attack is a smart one for Romney.
Republicans don’t have much taste for Romney. But they nurture a dramatic distaste for Obama.
If Romney can suggest that attacks on his record as a rapacious capitalist help Obama, that might do what he has not been able to do on his own: energize a Republican Party that has not to this point been inclined to settle on his candidacy.
Watch for Romney to ramp up this counterattack as he heads for South Carolina.
And watch for the right-wing echo chamber—which is already suggesting that Gingrich has been drinking from the “Occupy Wall Street” fountain—to amplify the message. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the Fox crowd does not want a debate about bad business practices and crony capitalism opening up in the Republican Party.
Still, there will be questions about whether Romney might actually be, er, um, well, a looter.
That’s what creates a small—OK, a very small—opening for Huntsman, who declared Tuesday night: “Here we go to South Carolina!”
Paul is not going to be the Republican nominee, and neither is Gingrich—who is already being dismissed as an Obama surrogate—or the fast-fading Santorum, who said he “respected the process” by coming to campaign in New Hampshire. Unfortunately for Santorum, the process did not respect him.
So what of Huntsman?
The former Utah governor is a polished politician, with better skills and a better style than Romney. But he’s not a radically different player. On some issues, he is more conservative than the front-runner—for instance, his embrace of House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan’s budget plan has been far warmer and more thorough-going than that of Romney or Gingrich.
What distinguishes Huntsman is that he is fresher and more appealing to moderates and independents than Romney.
But moderates and independents will not be the ultimate deciders of the Republican primaries to come.
With a good-enough showing in New Hampshire, Huntsman can march on to South Carolina and Florida, states where he has built a bit of infrastructure. His appealing style, and his billionaire father’s money (run through another Super PAC), will help.
But it is important to remember that Huntsman did well in New Hampshire because he poured most of his energy and money into the state. And he added a personal touch that works in the first-primary state but that will not necessarily work beyond its borders.
No one really bothered to attack Huntsman in Iowa, where he did not play, or in New Hampshire, where he was not much of a factor until the last seventy-two hours.
If he gets any traction, he’ll get whacked by Romney’s Super PACs.
And Huntsman will only get traction if Mitt Romney is taken down by those Gingrich Super PAC ads.
It falls to South Carolina to sort things out.
If the Gingrich mud sticks, Huntsman might have a chance to make some more news.
That’s an “if,” but not the most likely “if.”
Here’s the better bet: if Romney can unite the Obama-despising Republican party against Occupy Gingrich, then he will be the candidate he has always been—the nominee Republicans must settle for.