These may be the famous last words but I can’t recall a year when it seemed easier to predict the winner of a competitive New Hampshire primary.
The most recent Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of the New Hampshire polls has Romney with leading with 40 percent support, Ron Paul in second with 21 percent and Rick Santorum in third with 10.6 percent. Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich round out the top four with 9.4% and 8.6%, respectively. At no point in this campaign has Romney dipped below 30 percent support in the RCP average of New Hampshire polls.
With that in mind, here is your scorecard as you watch Fox News Tuesday night. In this game of GOP combat we set thresholds for each candidates’ performance and the contestants score big points on the campaign scoreboard if they break their threshold.
If he breaks 50 percent watch out! Fresh off his photo-finish victory in the Iowa Caucuses, Romney is the clear favorite to win in the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation primary. He certainly needs to win with more than 25 percent of the vote. If it is in the low 30s that will be seen as a loss.
Attacks on his business background intensified in the weekend debates and he was slapped hard by Gingrich’s exclamation that he is full of baloney in suggesting he is anything but a lifelong politician. Is there any sign that the criticism is taking hold?
After all, Romney was the Governor of neighboring Massachusetts for four years and owns a lavish estate in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. He has racked up key endorsements from the state’s political heavy-hitters including former Governor John H. Sununu, former Governor and Senator Judd Gregg and freshman Senator Kelly Ayotte, a favorite of conservatives and tea party activists. Team Romney hopes to lock up the nomination early by running the table and winning the five early contests. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada.
Romney needs to win convincingly here or he is encouraging his opponents to fight on.
After exceeding expectations in Iowa Santorum needs to do it again. He is not coming within 8 votes of Romney here but anything close to 20 percent will signal that he is the conservative alternative to Romney and ready to stir passions in South Carolina.
Santorum had little time to build any campaign structure here with the money that flowed in after his strong run in Iowa. He is hoping to capitalize on that momentum. New Hampshire has a lot of Catholic voters and blue collar voters who should be interested in Santorum’s message about family values and the importance of the manufacturing sector.
Job creation and the economy will be the number one issue in this campaign. Santorum has an interesting proposal to exempt U.S. manufacturers from corporate taxes. Coming from a blue-collar family, Santorum is one of the few candidates talking about how the government can help the working class Americans who have been squeezed over the last decade. The problem is that Santorum can’t escape his past as a social conservative crusader who railed against abortion rights and gay marriage. This has been evidenced by his recent testy exchanges with voters at public events here. Then there are the shots coming from his competitors who have pointed out his big spending of government money when he represented Pennsylvania.
By the end of Tuesday night the question is one of the following two: Was Santorum just a shooting star in Iowa who faded to black by the time he hit New Hampshire and disappeared down a dark hole before reaching South Carolina? Or has Santorum done well enough in New Hampshire to cement his stature as the conservative alternative to Romney?
We report, you decide.
He has been running a strong second here all along and the Texas Congressman came in a strong but disappointing third in the Iowa Caucuses. Will New Hampshire voters abandon Paul and turn to Santorum or Gingrich to shake up the field?
Paul sees the threat from the men below him in the polls and he has been on the offensive in debates and in TV ads here in New Hampshire. He had two of his most impassioned debate performances over the weekend and is betting that his libertarian message will hold New Hampshire voters whose state motto “Live Free of Die.”
Can Paul improve on his 18 percent showing in Iowa? If he breaks 25 percent that will be a winner for him. And he has to get those added percentage points out of Romney or the people chasing him from behind.
If he get less than 15 percent that means Paul is fading.
He attracted all those self-described independent voters in Iowa and he looks to be set for a repeat here with more than 60 percent of voters here saying they are open to change their minds before Tuesday.
His performance in New Hampshire is also an early test for the viability of a Paul third party candidacy.
After getting mugged by the GOP establishment – et tu, Mitt – in Iowa, Gingrich needs to show he can get back up. That means he has to get more than 10 percent of the vote. Ideally, he needs to be in the high teens to get the pundits talking about him as the latest New Hampshire visitor to announce himself as “The Comeback Kid.”
Back in December when Newt was on top of all the national polls, he won the coveted endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader, the influential conservative newspaper in the state. It was thought that Newt’s momentum, propelled by his strong debate performances, could carry him through the first round of voting.
However, a blitzkrieg of negative television advertisements from Super PACs supporting Mitt Romney brought down his presidential campaign in the cornfields on Iowa with a disappointing fourth-place finish in the caucuses. I thought Newt’s rhetorical skills and command of the issues could sustain his campaign past South Carolina but he needs a good showing in the Granite State to fire up voters in South Carolina.
This does not look good. So if the ambassador can just break into double digits in the final vote he will come out of this as a man who exceeded expectations. That is all he needs to hold on until Florida.
Of all the candidates, the former Utah governor and U.S. envoy to China has invested the most time and effort into winning New Hampshire. He had a great retort for Romney during the Sunday debate when the front-runner tried to skewer him for working for President Obama. He said Romney was guilty of the kind of thinking that has caused the nation’s political polarization.
Did the voters notice?
Perhaps he will have better luck when he runs again in 2016.
The officials may have to stop the fight. Perry has the money and the national organization to stay in the race a little while longer but his poor debate performances have defined him as out of his league.
At the ABC debate over the weekend, he declared that he would send U.S. troops back into Iraq even though they were withdrawn less than a month ago. GOP voters are simply too afraid to send him in to debate against President Obama as their nominee. If Perry can get 5 percent of the vote that will be good for him. If he gets 10 percent there may be new life for the man who was once the great hope to snatch the nomination from Romney.
So, there you have it – Mitt Romney will, in all likelihood, win in New Hampshire. The polls already show him pulling into the lead in South Carolina and Florida where he hopes to vanquish his remaining rivals.
The other candidates will have to think long and hard about how their continued presence in the race will affect their political legacies. As it stands now, Santorum, Gingrich and Perry can all go on to careers in the conservative media and private sector consulting. If they continue to beat up on Romney after it becomes clear they have no chance of winning the nomination, their own brands will suffer.
Even Ron Paul, has to think about his legacy. A group of conservative activists, led by talk radio host Mark Levin, has issued a clear warning to Congressman Paul. If he run as a third party candidate, they will retaliate by working to defeat his son Rand Paul when he runs for re-election to the U.S. Senate in Kentucky in 2016.
It is true that when it comes to primaries, Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line. After tomorrow night, Mitt Romney will be the leader of that line.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July.