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Romney’s likely path to the nomination after New Hampshire

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The New Hampshire night went according to script and it was a good one for Mitt Romney.

The former governor of Massachusetts easily won in New Hampshire, with nearly 40% of the votes, and is now headed to South Carolina as the sure favorite for the GOP nomination. After coming under heavy fire in recent days for his past work at Bain Capital, he must have breathed a sigh of relief: his Republican opponents have taken to suggest that, in his role as a venture capitalist, Romney prioritized profits above all and destroyed jobs rather than creating them, an accusation that threatens to undermine the core of his message as a candidate with private-sector experience and a job creator.

In the meantime, the fight for second place and the title of true anti-Romney is still on. The longer it takes for the conservative wing of the GOP, which remains skeptical of former Massachusetts governor’s credentials, to rally behind another candidate, the less likely it becomes that it ever will. With time, endorsements and money are flowing the way of Romney, clearing his path toward the nomination.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who came third in the Iowa caucuses, took second place in the Granite State, with around 23% of the votes. Jon Huntsman, who was hoping for a result that could salvage a thus far disappointing campaign, was third, at nearly 17%. Rick Santorum (a very close second in Iowa) ended up in a neck and neck with Newt Gingrich for position number four, while Texas governor Rick Perry trailed everybody else by a big margin (he racked up less than 1% of the votes). 

Paul’s high-flying campaign is a blessing for Romney. With his out-of-the-mainstream libertarian views on issues from the Federal Reserve (which he wants to abolish) to foreign policy (he wants the US to withdraw almost entirely from the rest of the world) he is unlikely to grab the GOP nomination, yet, in the process, he is taking votes away from others, such as Santorum and Gingrich, who could, at least in theory, be more dangerous to the former Massachusetts governor.

With his latest win, Romney becomes the first Republican to capture both Iowa and New Hampshire since 1976. In modern history, every single candidate that won both competitions ended up pocketing his party nomination. Not surprisingly, in his victory speech, Romney sounded very much like he was already running for the general elections. He criticized President Barack Obama’s “politics of envy” and offered himself as an obvious alternative for the White House. “This president takes his inspirations from the capitals of Europe,” Romney said, attacking Obama as being anti-free market. “This President puts his faith in government. We put our faith in the American people.”

But it is still too early to call it. All candidates have pledged to stay in the race until at least South Carolina (Texas Governor Perry didn’t even campaign in New Hampshire,) where many observers believe the real fight will take place.

This is already the case as far as the battle of campaign ads. Until now, South Carolina voters have had to sit through at least 5,500 primary-related commercials, while New Hampshire voters only saw 2,800. This week alone, Restore our Future, a powerful super PAC that supports Mitt Romney, bought $2.3 million worth of ads, while a similar pro-Gingrich group (Winning our Future), planned to spend $3.4 million in negative ads attacking the former Massachusetts governor.

South Carolina (the Palmetto State) is believed to be still up for grabs because its politics are more traditionally conservative than New Hampshire’s, where voters tend to be more moderate (in exit polls, 47% of Granite State’s primary voters described themselves as independent and 48% as Republican.) For example, evangelical Christians, who look skeptically at Romney, a Mormon from liberal Massachusetts, tend to wield more influence in South Carolina. Several candidates, Santorum, Gingrich and Perry, will all vie for the religious vote. And since this might very well be their last stand, the campaign is likely to turn increasingly nasty, something of a tradition in the Palmetto State (it was here that a barrage of attacks against John McCain in 2000 effectively handed the nomination to George W. Bush.)

As of now, polls have Romney in the lead in South Carolina as well. The latest numbers from Public Policy Polling put him at 27%, ahead of Gingrich (23%,) Santorum (18%,) Paul (8%,) and Perry (7%.) His resounding victory in New Hampshire is only bound to add more momentum to his campaign. But in order to be crowned the GOP candidate for the presidency at the party national convention in August, Romney has to collect more than half of all delegates. As long as his opponents vow to continue fighting, he cannot afford to take the nomination for granted.