Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney cruised to a largely expected victory tonight in the “first in the nation” New Hampshire primary and with a margin that should be considered decisive to most objective observers. He also won every county in the state, with every opponent trailing him by double-digits. So let’s close the chapter on handicapping what the margins means and focus on what happens next.
Several sub-plots emerged as a result of tonight’s returns from the Granite state, few that are very good for the rest of the GOP field. So as the candidates and the nation turn attention to South Carolina, here are some key observations to take with us:
1. Romney’s Granite State firewall withstood some intense heat. It was important for Romney to show that he could still meet expectations despite a barrage of attacks aimed at portraying him as an elitist and ruthless corporate raider; the central theme of a brutal 30 minute documentary scrutinizing his tenure at Bain Capital released by a Super-PAC friendly to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Though it didn’t seem to effect the results in New Hampshire, it may play in South Carolina and Romney must be prepared to go on offense with this issue or risk serious damage to his potential general election campaign.
2. Congressman Ron Paul’s second place finish was impressive but largely a moral victory. While in Manchester this weekend, I spent a lot of time with prominent New Hampshire conservative radio host Jack Heath, who insisted Paul would have an authoritative second place finish. This was not an endorsement as much as an observation that his civil libertarian message resonated strongly in the state whose motto is “Live Free or Die.”
The solid Paul performance effectively cut off the rest of the candidates from coming close to Romney, which certainly was not by design. With no logical next step for Paul, this will likely be the last election night where he places in the top tier. That is unless he is the last man standing facing Romney.
3. Don’t dive for the Huntsman foul ball. Former Ambassador Jon Huntsman met his measure of over-performing “market expectations,” but he leaves New Hampshire without any real wind to his back and all dressed up with nowhere to go.
It’s hard for a candidate who spent the entire race effectively running for “President of New Hampshire,” with 170 public events in the state, and $2 million in Super PAC ads to claim a weak third place finish is a win of any kind.
Unlike former Senator Rick Santorum who employed a similar strategy in Iowa, there was no surge that materialized for Huntsman despite some late game momentum among voters hoping to avoid a Romney coronation.
Unfortunately, Huntsman would be very misguided to think that his prospects would be any brighter in South Carolina or Florida and he leaves New Hampshire without a clear roadmap forward.
4. A third place finish was in former Senator Rick Santorum’s reach, but a sloppy campaign didn’t allow him to capitalize on his momentum from Iowa. The dominant narrative for Santorum this weekend should have been how Granite state conservatives were organizing behind him as the natural alternative to Romney.
Instead, tales of campaign missteps and a candidate struggling through Q&A sessions at town hall meetings was the last impression many voters were left with.
Since electability is such a significant criteria this year, Santorum seemed to reinforce the fear that he was not ready for prime time. He has a chance to recalibrate his campaign in more conservative friendly South Carolina, but by finishing in the lower half in New Hampshire, will not inspire the fundraising success that came to his campaign after Iowa.
5. The historian needs to consider his place in history. Suffering a monumental defeat in New Hampshire, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich needs to think long and hard about how he wants to be remembered as a presidential contender.
Just a month ago, Gingrich seemed to be the only real threat to a Romney landslide in New Hampshire. He earned the prestigious endorsement of the Union-Leader, the state’s conservative touchstone, and his strong debate performances played well among its thoughtful and savvy electorate.
Tonight he virtually finishes in last place, not including Texas Governor Rick Perry who abandoned campaigning in the state.
Instead of running to win in New Hampshire, Gingrich began exacting his revenge on Romney for the work the Massachusett's governor's Super-PAC did with negative attacks on him in Iowa.
He seemed petulant, undisciplined and petty.
Now, he heads to South Carolina, a state where he was once reported to have the best organization, deeply wounded.
Though no candidates may drop out as a result tonight's primary, they leave New Hampshire mortally wounded with the road ahead looking awfully grim for all those chasing the anti-Romney mantle.
With the four major contests of this nomination season, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, all occurring before January 31, the likelihood that Romney will knock out his Republican opponents appears as inevitable as his win here was tonight.
Tony Sayegh is a Republican campaign consultant, political analyst and national correspondent for Talk Radio News Service. He appears regularly on Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network and weekly on FoxNews.com. E-mail Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org.