With Iowa behind them, candidates flock to NH

The frantic final days before the Iowa caucuses may have felt to the candidates like a sprint to the finish line, but they will have little time to catch their breath before the pace picks up again in New Hampshire, which will hold the nation’s first primary on Jan. 10.

Mitt Romney edged Rick Santorum in Iowa by only eight votes in what was the closest caucus election in modern American history, a win which spotlighted a sharply divided GOP and signaled a tough nomination fight ahead.

Except for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, all of the other major candidates are expected to find their way to the Granite State by Saturday night, when ABC News will host a 9 p.m. debate in Manchester. Twelve hours later and less than 20 miles away in Concord, the candidates will square off again on NBC’s Meet the Press.

After a disappointing last place finish, reports said Bachman who intended to bypass New Hampshire and head to South Carolina on Wednesday had scheduled a press conference for 11 a.m. ET in Iowa adding to speculation she may drop out of the race.

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Gov. Rick Perry, who had been expected to direct his focus on South Carolina as well, limped to a tough fifth-place finish in Iowa's caucuses and announced to supporters Tuesday night that he was headed to Texas to “reassess” his candidacy.

Romney though heads to friendly territory in New Hampshire, where all the other candidates have been competing for the No. 2 slot. Romney, who has spent months diligently campaigning in the state, is his most comfortable around New Hampshire’s fiscal conservatives, and is familiar to locals from his years governing neighboring Massachusetts.

Romney has consistently performed 10-20 points better there than his nearest competitors in the Granite state, so his final days of campaigning will feel more like a victory lap than a contested struggle. Three town halls on Wednesday and Thursday will take Romney to Manchester, Peterborough and Salem.

But in typically disciplined and forward-looking style, Romney’s team won’t let the coast into New Hampshire distract them from the next battle in South Carolina, where Gingrich still maintains a commanding lead. Romney will drop in to South Carolina for a Thursday night rally in Charleston and before heading right back to New Hampshire on Friday.

Santorum has been polling below 4 percent in New Hampshire and would normally not expend many resources to compete in a state where his drum beat of social conservatism hasn’t resonated strongly with more moderate voters. But Santorum can’t afford to let the momentum he built up in Iowa disperse before South Carolina. The former Pennsylvania senator will aim to transform the increased media attention he is attracting into an opportunity to convince New Hampshire voters he deserves a second look.

Santorum has a light schedule on Wednesday, but has an evening town hall planned in Brentwood. On Thursday, he has lunch at a Tilton diner, a speech at a college convention in Concord and a town hall in Windham.

Gingrich may be the first candidate to have headed east after the Iowa results were announced. The former House speaker announced his plans days ahead of time to fly to New Hampshire on Tuesday night, and invited journalists who wanted to come with him to sign up for a press charter flight.

Gingrich was in second place in New Hampshire until just days ago, but his support has ebbed rapidly and Ron Paul is now filling the second tier under Romney. He has town halls in Concord, Laconia and Manchester on Wednesday, and four more town halls on Thursday.

For Huntsman, New Hampshire couldn’t come soon enough. The former Utah governor skipped Iowa and made no secret of his be-all-end-all approach to New Hampshire. The 10-12 percent he’s been picking up in the polls there are his best numbers of any of the early states polled, and he hopes that by winning over the moderate wing of the GOP, he can convince the rest of the party he’s the surest bet to defeat President Obama.

Huntsman has five events Wednesday in four New Hampshire towns, including two town halls and a leadership meeting at his campaign headquarters in Manchester. He has a similarly eventful schedule planned for Thursday and Friday.

Paul hasn’t announced the details of where he will be in the days after Iowa. But the 76-year-old congressman has made sure to pace himself on the campaign trail, rarely dashing from event to event as hurriedly as some of his opponents.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry had originally planned to greet voters on Wednesday in Aiken and North Augusta, S.C. but instead seems likely to exit the race.

"With a little prayer and reflection I'm going to figure out the best path forward," Perry said after finishing fifth in the Iowa caucuses and is expected to return to Texas to assess his campaign.

This story was updated at 9:12 a.m.