Will New Hampshire’s Primary Matter in the 2012 GOP Nomination Battle?

Romney will be hard to stop if he wins big, but rivals' digs could haunt him.

Cheryl Senter / AP Photo

The race may be tightening!

A new CBS News poll has Mitt Romney clinging to just 19 percent of the Republican vote, with Newt Gingrich nipping at his heels with 15 percent and Rick Santorum surging right behind at 14 percent.

Completely and totally irrelevant.

These are national numbers, and the battle for the GOP nomination is a state-by-state contest that functions as a demolition derby. A couple of more car wrecks and this thing could effectively be over by the end of January.

A confident-sounding Romney has been using a standard line at his New Hampshire appearances that draws a few chuckles: “I hope you’ll give me more than an eight-vote margin.”

No one thinks he is facing an Iowa-style squeaker on Tuesday in the state in which the former Massachusetts governor has a vacation home. Romney is dominating New Hampshire with 41 percent of the vote, according to a WMUR-TV survey, with Ron Paul at 17, Jon Huntsman (can you feel the surge?) jumping into a third-place tie with Santorum at 11, and Gingrich at 8. (Yes, Mitt’s down to 33 percent in a Suffolk University poll, but let’s just say it won’t be a late night.)

So what does that mean? Sure, if Romney finishes below 40 percent the media will moan and groan that he failed to meet expectations. And yes, if one of his non–Ron Paul rivals—say, Santorum—were to finish a surprisingly strong second, conservatives might rally around him as the only viable alternative to Mitt. If Huntsman could break out of the pack, maybe voters elsewhere would give the media’s favorite Republican candidate a second look (though he’s got nothing going in any other state).

The conventional wisdom has always been that if one candidate won Iowa and New Hampshire, he would be unstoppable. And it’s hard to find a serious political analyst who thinks there’s much chance that Romney, with his methodical and well-financed campaign, is going to fumble away this nomination. He’s even leading the polls by an average of 10 points in South Carolina, the conservative bastion that is hardly a natural fit for a man who once campaigned as a moderate. From there it’s on to Florida, where only a well-financed contender can compete in the mega media markets.

So while the press, which craves a closer race, will likely overinterpret Romney’s margin in New Hampshire, I believe something more significant has unfolded over the past week.

The Republican race has embraced the left-wing critique, heavily promoted by the Democratic National Committee, that Romney was a heartless, job-destroying businessman. Here you have Gingrich complaining that Romney “looted” other firms when he was a takeover artist at Bain Capital, one who “takes all the money out of your company and then leaves you bankrupt while they go off with millions—that’s not traditional capitalism.”

Rick Perry also is talking about the jobs that Romney “killed.”

These attacks may not change the outcome in New Hampshire or South Carolina, but they are going to leave Romney scarred for the fall campaign against President Obama. One can easily imagine the Democratic ads: “Even Newt Gingrich said Romney robbed companies and bankrupted them.”

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This is fascinating as a philosophical development, as the modern-day Republican Party has always seemed to champion unbridled capitalism free from bothersome government regulation—and if some jobs are lost in the process while others are created, well, that’s the free market at work. As a political development, it will be harder for the Romney camp to dismiss the Democratic assault as some kind of pointy-headed liberal claptrap if Republican candidates are making the same case.

Romney has inexplicably helped his foes paint that dark narrative. Trying to explain the benefits of health-insurance competition in Nashua, he said this: “If you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”

Bingo. The man gets his kicks by kicking people to the curb! Huntsman wasted no time in pouncing: “Governor Romney enjoys firing people—I enjoy creating jobs.”

Romney also tried over the weekend to claim empathy with those anxious about the job market: “I know what it’s like to worry about whether or not you are going to get fired. There are times when I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.” Really? The son of a governor and auto executive who has law and business degrees from Harvard? When, exactly, was he sweating bullets about getting canned? His campaign gave only a vague response, saying this was when Romney was “a young person just out of college” and “worked his way up the career ladder.”

Despite these missteps, you have to give Romney his due. Far from a natural politician, he lifted his game after his failure in 2008, won a state (Iowa) that he had basically decided to bypass, and is about to win another (New Hampshire) in a crowded field.

He won’t get much of a bump for the Granite State victory because, as the media score these things, he’s expected to win. But Romney doesn’t need much of a bump at this point. He just needs to keep cruising along in a stodgy but reliable car while the other vehicles run out of gas.