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Can Mitt Romney Meet New Hampshire Expectations?

Welcome aboard the weird electoral expectations train. Next stop: New Hampshire.

Oddly, some observers interpreted the narrowest of wins in Iowa by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as a loss — a strange conclusion given that six months earlier, almost every veteran political analyst and handicapper was saying that Romney was wise to avoid the evangelical-dominated caucuses.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who seems to complain that every criticism of him and his record is a lie, is correct that Romney’s allies spent lots of money to win Iowa, yet their candidate was unable to grow his support beyond the same 25 percent that supported him four years ago. (In fact, Romney not only received the same percentage he did in 2008, he drew support from almost the exact same number of Iowans — 30,021 in 2008 and 30,015 this time.)

But so what? Campaigns are about the candidates, and Romney simply benefits more from the current field than he did in 2008. And if money automatically translated into support, Texas Gov. Rick Perry would have done much better on caucus night than he did. Remember, the last Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, finished fourth in Iowa in 2008, drawing about half of the support that Romney did this time.

So don’t buy the spin that the caucuses were disappointing for Romney because he won by “only” eight votes.

Romney was the big winner because he finished ahead of everyone else in a state and contest that dramatically disadvantaged him but also because his closest competitor, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, starts far behind elsewhere in money, organization and support, and third-place finisher Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s positions on foreign policy, defense and cultural issues are badly out of step with his party.

Romney strategists must have pinched themselves to assure that they were not dreaming when they heard that Perry, after saying that he would return to Texas to reconsider his plans (normally a signal that he would be withdrawing), announced that he would stay in the race and compete in South Carolina.

New Hampshire should be excellent territory for Romney, though his initial huge lead had to narrow after Santorum’s showing, the media’s attention to Santorum’s candidacy and the hits that Romney took from his adversaries.

The Granite State is something of a potential pothole for Romney, of course, because he is expected to do well and needs a solid victory — whatever that is — to provide momentum into crucial South Carolina. The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign surely would like a double-digit victory Tuesday. An unexpected loss would turn the Republican race into a free-for-all.

The Granite State landscape certainly benefits Romney. While conservatives constituted 83 percent of the Iowa caucuses attendees, they were just 55 percent of 2008 New Hampshire GOP primary voters, according to the exit poll four years ago.

Even more important, while 58 percent of the Iowa caucuses attendees last week described themselves as evangelicals or born-again Christians, only 21 percent of New Hampshire voters described themselves that way.

So New Hampshire, which holds a primary, will produce a very different electorate from the 120,000 Iowans who showed up at the Republican caucuses.

But even if Romney does what nobody else has — finish first in Iowa and New Hampshire — the GOP race looks to be all about South Carolina.

A Romney victory in the Palmetto State isn’t impossible if Santorum, Gingrich and Perry all stay in the race through Jan. 21. After all, McCain won the South Carolina primary in 2008, and while Romney lacks the strong military credentials that undoubtedly helped McCain draw a third of the vote in the primary, the state does have an “establishment conservative” wing that should find Romney’s views and style appealing.

Four years ago, McCain and Romney combined to draw 48.5 percent of the South Carolina primary vote, with Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson combining for 45.4 percent.

While 60 percent of 2008 GOP primary voters in South Carolina self-identified as white evangelicals or born-again Christians — about the same number as in the 2008 Iowa GOP caucuses — a substantial 31 percent of 2008 Palmetto State Republican primary voters identified themselves as moderate or liberal, far more than the 17 percent who chose those labels last week in Iowa.

Romney has not yet won the Republican nomination, and anyone who calls his nomination inevitable simply hasn’t been watching the Republican electorate’s volatility.

The calendar and the makeup of the GOP field remains a problem for any of the conservatives in the race, but Romney’s limited appeal among the most conservative in the party shows no signs of changing. That said, Mitt Romney looks very much in the driver’s seat — at the moment.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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