Mitt Romney rolled to a convincing victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday, lengthening the odds that anyone will deprive him of the Republican nomination.
For all the pregame chatter about what number Romney had to hit to avoid the dreaded verdict of underperforming expectations, the former Massachusetts governor captured the state by double digits, with just under 40 percent of the vote. Romney’s win was all the more striking because he’s had a terrible few days, battered by his rivals as a heartless corporate chieftain at Bain Capital and blundering by declaring that he likes to fire people (though his remarks were wrenched out of context).
Frontrunners have flashed across the Republican sky all year, but there is no spinning the fact that Romney has now won the first two contests (with an eight-vote spread in the first one, to be sure) and is the overwhelming favorite to take on President Obama in November.
Romney, appearing with his wife and five sons, launched into an economic attack on the incumbent: “The president has run out of ideas. Now he’s running out of excuses.” And he punched back at the Bain attacks, saying Obama “wants to put free enterprise on trial,” and “we’ve seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him.” The country, said Romney, should “not be dragged down by a resentment of success.”
The outcome left the drama-hungry press to focus on the second-place finisher. But unfortunately for the pundits, that was Ron Paul, who is almost universally viewed as unable to win the nomination. The Texas congressman finished with 23 percent.
Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who put all his chips on New Hampshire, wound up third, with 17 percent of the vote. That may fall short of the boost his underfunded effort badly needed.
Newt Gingrich, who savaged Romney after (mostly) trying to stay positive in Iowa, took fourth place with 9.4 percent. He just edged out Rick Santorum, who managed a virtual tie in Iowa after working the state all year but drew just 9.3 percent of the vote Tuesday. Rick Perry, who basically skipped New Hampshire, came in last.
In struggling to explain how he created as well as destroyed jobs as a venture capitalist—parrying a GOP line of attack that the Democrats have also embraced—Romney hardly emerged from New Hampshire unscathed. But the calendar is now very much on his side.
South Carolina, which votes Jan. 21, is fertile ground for conservatives, but the field to Romney’s right remains splintered after Tuesday’s results. And Florida, on Jan. 31, is a diverse and expensive state tailor-made for a candidate with Romney’s deep pockets.
Even if he fails to wrap things up in January, Romney’s well-organized operation is best positioned for a long slog. Only he and Paul, for instance, qualified for the Virginia ballot. And the Romney team is delighted that Paul, not a more threatening long-term challenger, was the runner-up.
The New Hampshire results may give Romney the one thing he’s been lacking as he was overshadowed by the likes of Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, and Herman Cain: the aura of a winner.
Four years after losing the nomination to John McCain, Romney managed to recast his candidacy, sharpen his campaigning skills, rise above the flip-flopping charges, avoid major blunders, and prevail in two markedly different states. Iowa is more conservative and evangelical, New Hampshire more moderate and more open to non-Republicans.
Romney scored well in New Hampshire with independents, who made up 44 percent of Tuesday’s electorate, according to some network exit polls, making them a more potent force than in other states. Among this group, Romney edged Paul, 30 to 29 percent, with Huntsman at 27 percent. Romney also led among late deciders with 29 percent of their votes, the exit numbers showed, indicating that the Bain dust-up didn’t hurt him as badly as the headlines suggested.
The electability argument is also working for him. Romney cleaned up among voters whose highest priority is defeating Obama, taking 59 percent among that group.
In his fast-paced speech, Romney touched plenty of bases in vowing to save “the soul of America,” repeal Obamacare, pull the country back from European-style socialism, follow the Constitution, stand with Israel, and “never apologize for America.” He relied on a teleprompter to avoid any missteps—not that his Democratic opponent can make an issue of that—and clearly hopes he will be making more victory speeches in the weeks ahead.
But in a warning sign for the GOP, turnout was down significantly from 2008, even though there was no contest on the Democratic side—a possible barometer of diminished enthusiasm.