By John Barron
Concord, NH: For Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney, New Hampshire’s presidential primary presented plenty of downsides and not a lot to gain.
He’s been leading in this state — which neighbours Massachusetts, where Romney served as Governor from 2002-2006 — by more than 20 per cent right through this campaign, and a win by anything less than double-digits would be declared an underwhelming victory.
For the week since his razor-thin eight vote win over Rick Santorum in Iowa, Romney has become an even bigger target. His career on Wall Street at Bain Capital in the “greed is good” 1980s has been characterised as that of a corporate raider and downsizer, rather than as the savior of struggling businesses — his preferred version of history
Despite the barbs of his increasingly negative rivals, Romney seemed unbeatable here. Yet as Barack Obama found out in 2008, the voters of New Hampshire don’t like to be told the race is over, and have a tendency to settle on their candidate late.
It was that year Hillary Clinton trailed in the Granite State after Obama’s big win in Iowa, but a late turn-around saw her become the second Clinton to make a comeback in New Hampshire. In 1992, another former Massachusetts politician, Senator Paul Tsongas, won New Hampshire by more than 8 per cent, but it wasn’t enough to stop being overshadowed by resurgent Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who dubbed himself the “Comeback Kid.”
This time for the Republicans though, with Romney winning around twice the support of his nearest rival, the focus shifted down the line to see who would place second, third, fourth and fifth.
Smarting from the barrage of SuperPAC ads raking over the darker coals of Newt Gingrich’s past, the former speaker has been whirring across New Hampshire seemingly in a mood of petulant defiance.
Gingrich may be slipping in South Carolina and Florida, but he doesn’t seem ready to go quietly into the night. His call in last Saturday’s Manchester NBC debate for Romney to quit the “pious baloney” may well enter the annals of Great Debate Moments, with Rick Perry’s campaign-crushing “oops” moment from two long months ago.
The primary here lacks the theatrics of a caucus vote like Iowa, none of the speeches in school gyms and community halls. Except for the casting of a handful of “first of the first” votes at midnight in the ski resort of Dixville Notch (where Romney and Huntsman tied 2-all) it was pretty much like an election day in Australia.
The streets were full of chanting and sign-waving campaign volunteers: "RON PAUL FREEDOM," "HUNTSMAN," "ROMNEY: BELIEVE IN AMERICA," and, simply, "NEWT" (no further explanation required).
As the last polling places closed at 8pm and the votes were tallied, the results were following the trend of recent opinion polls: Romney in the mid-30s, Paul the mid-20s and Huntsman the mid-teens, with Gingrich close behind.
And so it continued.
Jon Huntsman’s hopes of a surprise second had fallen short: a double victory for Romney, who would be more concerned about his fellow moderate’s potential than the libertarian Ron Paul, who continues to motivate passionate support from his followers and complete indifference from the pundits.
So, Romney’s “shock and awe” tactic of becoming the first non-incumbent to win the first two states paid off.
At 8.25pm, Romney’s wife Ann introduced her husband to jubilant supporters in Manchester. He had his eye fixed on a greater prize, taking square aim at Barack Obama: "The last three years have had a lot of change but not a lot of hope".
He said November’s election would be about “saving the soul of America.”
But unlike George W Bush in 2003, Romney will do well not to declare “Mission Accomplished” just yet. With deep divisions between the social conservatives, the fiscal conservatives, and the Tea Partiers within the Republican Party, a civil war could still erupt.
11 January 2012