MANCHESTER, N.H. – Iowa marries for love, but New Hampshire is a shrewder bride.
The first-in-the-nation primary has a slightly better record of picking presidents than Iowa. The eventual Republican nominee has won New Hampshire in four of the six previous contested primaries compared to three who have won Iowa.
But Iowa having culled the field, New Hampshire has an easier task. The skies are not open here. And, having been in this role since 1952, New Hampshire voters are able to craft some very cagy messages to send to the rest of the American GOP.
The two elections since 1976 in which New Hampshire didn't pick the eventual nominee -- 1996 and 2000 -- were acts of rebellion against the GOP establishment. In 2000, it was Sen. John McCain's mavericky, independent streak that was more appealing here than George W. Bush's Texas-fried fusion of establishmentarians and evangelicals. In 1996, New Hampshire spoke through firebrand conservative Pat Buchanan with a warning for the inevitable but unloved Sen. Bob Dole: Don't take the right for granted.
But sometimes, as would appear to be the case this year, it's second place that does the talking.
Buchanan raked President George H.W. Bush over the conservative coals in 1992, which proved a harbinger of the incumbent's eventual defeat. Stretching back to 1964, local favorite Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. won on regional pride and dissatisfaction with the rest of the field.
But New Hampshire gave an unlikely second place to conservative icon Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, rather than the then-inevitable New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Shoving Rockefeller to third behind Goldwater and undeclared write-in Lodge was certainly a message for Rockefeller: Voters were turned off by his moderate politics and fresh divorce and remarriage. Unfortunately for Rockefeller, so was the rest of the country.
This year, frontrunner Mitt Romney and the runner-up in the polls, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, seem to have found the ceilings in their support here, but there are two conservative candidates and one moderate knotted behind them, any one of whom could have a breakout day on Tuesday.
The weather is mild (by New England standards), Republicans are feeling ornery, liberal independents are feeling mischievous and turnout projections remain a mystery. To help you keep track, Power Play offers the following cheat sheet on the candidates and their New Hampshire efforts, ranked in order of their standing in the Real Clear Politics Average for the state.
New Hampshire Polling Average: 38.8 percent
Needs: Romney must win, and do so in a way that helps him start to retire his "25 percent" label.
Romney can't really win New Hampshire in the sense that a victory by the former governor of a neighboring state who keeps a vacation home here has always been the presumed outcome.
But how he wins matters. If Romney doesn't get a big plurality -- say one-third of the votes in this crowded field -- it will be a real sign of weakness.
Romney's narrow Iowa win was an unexpected success for a candidate who once dared not even compete in the Hawkeye State. A loss here would be a catastrophe for Romney, but so would another squeaker. Romney must win decisively, and, preferably for him, without the Not Romneys still trying to unite the right far behind.
New Hampshire Polling Average: 19.8 percent
Needs: Another big bag of delegates.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, Paul has the support and funds necessary to press on to the convention in Tampa, Aug. 27. But, New Hampshire could give him one heckuva sendoff.
The libertarian-leaning Texas congressman is on track to double his 8 percent showing from 2008. If he does so, Paul will have, for a second contest, landed in the top tier of candidates in a party where he was treated as a pariah just one cycle ago.
One of the things that dragged down Paul's final number in Iowa was an argument from former Sen. Rick Santorum and state party leaders that if Paul won the caucuses there, it would discredit the process for future elections and national party leaders would eschew the caucus system in 2016.
But here, state law and 60 years of tradition guarantee first-in-the-nationness and Paul is a couple of furlongs behind Romney. Protest votes for the most anti-big government candidate of them all look particularly appealing.
A strong second here for Paul would be helpful to Romney in that it would be further evidence that the other conservative alternatives were still stuck in the muck. That would set up a South Carolina win for Romney and big-time momentum for a Florida coronation.
But it would be good for Paul too. The sooner Romney looks inevitable and the rest of the candidates fall to the wayside, the sooner Paul can become the remaining anti-Romney choice for voters in a long string of low-turnout primaries. That adds up to a stronger hand for Paul in Tampa.
New Hampshire Polling Average: 11.2
Needs: To beat Romney.
Huntsman has turned New Hampshire into a one-sided grudge match with fellow moderate Mormon Romney. Having found little national interest for his candidacy, Huntsman has staked it all on upsetting Romney here.
Huntsman is the Rick Santorum of New Hampshire -- a candidate who has devoted all his resources here with a very specific appeal to the state's voters. In Iowa, it was Santorum and social conservatives. In New Hampshire, it is Huntsman and moderate GOPers who share his view that their party is not "sane" as well as center-left independents who like Huntsman's service in the Obama administration.
But while the national GOP is rife with social conservatives, there are very few other places where Republicans are interested in moving the party away from its "faith and freedom" trajectory.
If, however, Huntsman, who has won some conservative admirers for his fiscal stances and good governance in Utah, were to shock the nation by beating Romney here it might make some waves in the GOP race.
Huntsman could tap his family's multi-billion-dollar chemical fortune to get up and running in South Carolina and Florida. That might allow Huntsman to join the national Not Romney contest, but that's all dependent on Huntsman pulling off a massive upset or at least replicating Santorum's single-digit second place finish in Iowa.
New Hampshire Polling Average: 11.2 percent
Needs: To be the top Not Romney
It seemed briefly that there would be a Santorum surge in New Hampshire. But while the Iowa runner-up climbed into double digits here following his surprise showing, his support has leveled off.
Part of the problem is that the little-known former senator is not in position to run a stealth campaign. His votes in Congress and work in the years since his 2006 defeat have soured some New Hampshire voters on him. Romney and Paul have both hit him for siding with labor unions against a national right-to-work law and his support of Bush-era initiatives like No Child Left Behind.
George W. Bush's coalition was weak in New Hampshire, and it stands to reason that Santorum's lack of funds and organization will also make for a tough climb.
With Paul and Huntsman doing their own things, Santorum's primary concern is coming in ahead of Newt Gingrich. A third- or fourth-place finish for Santorum would not be crushing given the unique nature of this contest, but, like Rick Perry in Iowa, a loss to Newt Gingrich would be dire.
Far behind Romney in the latest South Carolina polls, Santorum needs to put Gingrich away and start uniting the right. He also needs to show that he's more than a one-state candidate.
New Hampshire Polling Average: 9.2 percent
Needs: To beat Rick Santorum
While Gingrich has decided that Mitt Romney's attacks merit a deviation from his positive campaign experiment, his mutual admiration compact with Rick Santorum continues.
While Gingrich has discussed an alliance with Santorum to stop Romney, it's unclear who would be the lead dog on that sled. Gingrich, better known and more formidable in debates, sees Santorum as the "junior partner," a view that the former Senator no doubt does not share.
The Gingrich-Santorum tandem is sitting on 42 points in South Carolina compared to Romney's 31 percent. But merging those streams of support is tough. It can't be a hostile takeover since supporters must be wooed, not conquered.
But, a collegial whipping, like Gingrich delivered to Rick Perry in Iowa, could make a difference. If the former speaker ends up clearly in front of Santorum, it might help the awkward task of uniting the right in South Carolina.
New Hampshire Polling Average: 1 percent
Needs: For people to stop talking about New Hampshire and the right to remain divided.
Rick Perry has always favored South Carolina, sometimes to his detriment.
Remember that he ditched a debate and straw poll in Ames, Iowa this summer to declare his candidacy the same weekend at a South Carolina conference hosted by CNN contributor and conservative blogger Erick Erickson. Iowans were less receptive to Perry's request for a second looks given his summer shunning. And losing to Gingrich in Iowa squelched his comeback effort.
Now, Perry has gone on ahead of the field hoping that his early affections for the Palmetto State will be repaid on Jan. 21.
Given the super-slim support for Perry in New Hampshire, he has little choice but to go all in on the next contest and hope for a miracle down South. Unfortunately for him, that means being out of the national discussion for the next three days.
If Gingrich and Santorum are still playing Laurel and Hardy when they get to South Carolina, Perry might be able to find a way to squeeze through. But, if there's a clear winner between the two mainstream conservative Not Romneys contesting New Hampshire, his task will get even harder.