Tom Tillotson removes ballots for counting after midnight that were cast in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, at The Balsams Grand Resort, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012, in Dixville, New Hampshire (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
New Hampshire will cast and count the first actual votes of the 2012 presidential race today—the Iowa caucuses highlighted a glorified straw poll—and in so doing they will start answering the critical questions of an election season that promises to be wildly expensive, fiercely negative and potentially definitional for the Republican Party and the country.
Here’s what New Hampshire can tell us:
1. Is Mitt “I like to be able to fire people” Romney melting?
The GOP front-runner barely won Iowa—by eight votes over supposed-to-be-an-also-ran Rick Santorum. Seventy-five percent of caucus voters occupied the anyone-but-Romney camp.
In New Hampshire, he briefly polled close to 50 percent. But as the primary has approached, Romney has ticked downward. He hasn’t helped any by a primary-eve campaign swing that saw the accused “looter” of American businesses talk about how much he likes to fire people.
Even if Romney finishes first, he needs a strong win. As a big campaigner, big spender and virtual resident of the first-primary state, he needs to run at least ten points ahead of his nearest competitor and finish with more than a third of the vote. Anything less will confirm Iowa’s signal: that Republicans really aren’t that into Mitt. That will encourage his conservative competitors, particularly Newt Gingrich, to ramp up the attacks in South Carolina, Florida and later primary and caucus states. And it will keep Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard folks on the hunt for an alternative candidate. (It is probably worth noting that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was the star of Romney’s last rallies in New Hampshire. The candidate leaned in as close as he could to Christie, hoping to get in the pictures.)
2. Are there any responsible Republicans left?
Mitt Romney is not a moderate, and neither is Jon Huntsman. Both have been portrayed as insufficiently conservative. In fact, Romney is actively competing for the votes of social conservatives and Tea Partisans, while Huntsman is echoing most of their themes —especially with his embrace of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to batter Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The only thing that distinguishes them from the rest of a field that includes Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry is that Romney is trying to maintain his November viability by avoiding the ugliest excesses of language and policy, while Huntsman is actually referencing reality on issues such as climate change, civil unions and “too-big-to-fail” banks.