Defying the popular notion that he’s a weak front-runner, Mitt Romney has become the first non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate in history to win Iowa and New Hampshire in the same cycle.
Now the rest of the field finds itself looking up at Romney again, and looking hard at themselves as they try to figure out how to scuttle his path to the nomination.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Romney supporter, best approximated the campaign’s giddiness when he played a game of loose lips on Fox News, shortly after the network called the race for Romney.
How quickly? Now, or as soon as possible.
Romney is carrying incredible momentum heading into South Carolina – not just because he won New Hampshire resoundingly, but because he finished nearly 30% ahead of his primary competition in South Carolina: Newt Gingrich.
Both he and the super-PAC supporting him, Restore Our Future, have millions of dollars worth of ads already prepped for the Palmetto State, and are better organized than any other candidate.
And, oh yes, according to CNN’s latest survey, he leads by 18%.
His showing was impressive. In fact, he received more votes than Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, combined.
Nevertheless, his ceiling is limited. He performed 16% better among independents than among Republicans, and he even scored better with Democrats than with his GOP brethren.
Democrats and independents don’t decide GOP primaries, and until Paul gets more popular with his own party, he’s not going to pose a serious threat to Romney.
As commentator Brit Hume said on Fox News, “He has about as much chance as being nominated as RuPaul,” referring to the famous drag queen.
However unlikely, it seems Paul is going to take his second-place finish and continually formidable war chest to South Carolina with a third buddy in tow: an argument that he’s the guy to compete with Romney one-on-one.
In a statement released Tuesday night, his campaign urged Romney’s opponents to take on the GOP frontrunner “by getting out of the race and uniting behind Paul’s candidacy.”
He flunked the only test for which he’d been studying – New Hampshire. Sure, he came in third, but he’d invested all his time and energy into the state and has little to zero presence outside of the Granite state.
In his speech to supporters following his disappointing finish, Huntsman shouted “Hello, South Carolina.”
But it turns out South Carolina might be ready to answer “goodbye” and slam the door shut. He’s currently at just 2.3% in the RCP average of polls – good for last place. In fact, the candidate closest to him – Rick Perry – more than doubles his support.
Money will be a big issue for him. It’s not clear who’s contributing money to the super-PAC supporting him, but most think his billionaire father is involved in at least some way with the endeavor. That means there could be more money on the way, but to what end? He has no meaningful organization or support in the state, and he probably can’t find it with just eleven days until the primary.
In short, it’s bad news on an awful night for Huntsman.
Dr. Larry Sabato, the Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, summed it up in a tweet: “Huntsman is really fooling himself. Pols can always find a pony in the pile of you-know-what.”
It was a disappointing finish for Gingrich, who was left clawing to even reach double-digits.
But raw numbers are the least of his problems right now. He’s facing a growing assault from all corners of the Republican party angry with his attacks on Romney’s record at Bain Capital.
When establishment icon John Sununu and talk show legend Rush Limbaugh are both attacking you for being too leftist, you don’t have anywhere to run in the Republican primary.
Nevertheless, a super-PAC supporting him is up with a bruising and expensive new ad campaign in South Carolina, knocking Romney over his Bain record and abortion. If Gingrich is to have a last stand, it will be in South Carolina.
He’ll start getting hit right away for a key strategic blunder. After his Iowa surprise, he surprised even more by spending the next week in New Hampshire instead of South Carolina. He had no shot in the Granite State, and now his neglect of South Carolina threatens whatever chance he had there.
He’ll make a stand there, and a super-PAC that supports him – The Red, White, and Blue Fund – has been running ads, but the rub that he can’t win much more than social conservatives was proven deadly accurate in New Hampshire.
Shortly after his miserable showing that lingered in the 1% region all night, Perry’s campaign released a statement:
“Tonight’s results in New Hampshire show the race for ‘conservative alternative’ to Mitt Romney remains wide open…. South Carolina is the next stop. I have a head start here, and it’s friendly territory for a Texas governor and veteran with solid outsider credentials.”
Friendly, maybe to others, but not to this Texas governor. He’s currently mired at 5% in the RCP average of polls and faces a dwindling bank account and continually slipping support.
To fix that, expect him to focus heavily on economic and cultural populism. He tried the latter in Iowa, but came in just fifth. Now he’ll try to supplement it with populist attacks on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital.
“That is a problem for Mitt, and he’s going to have to face it,” Perry said on Fox News Tuesday night.