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The Republican pack toward New Hampshire

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After the Iowa caucuses unexpectedly ended in a virtual tie between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, with only eight votes separating them (some breaking reports Thursday night even suggested that Santorum might actually have won, a typo having unfairly attributed the lead to Romney,) and after Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who finished a disappointing sixth in Iowa, decided to drop out of the race, a smaller but just as determined field of GOP candidates now descends onto New Hampshire, where Republican primary voters will go to the polls next Tuesday.

The Granite State’s primary represents an important test for Romney. Anything less than a strong finish here would undermine the campaign of the former governor of Massachusetts, proving once again that, no matter how hard he tries, the Republican right is unwilling to support him. This, of course, is the outcome that former Pennsylvania Senator Santorum is wishing for, as he aims to become the candidate whom religious and fiscal conservatives unite behind. In New Hampshire, however, it could be Jon Huntsman’s turn to surprise everybody. Although trailing badly in the polls, the former governor of Utah and former US Ambassador to China has spent a great deal of time and money campaigning in the state and is hoping that a convincing performance here might help propel his campaign forward.

The outcome of the Iowa caucuses Tuesday did little to clarify where the race for the GOP nomination stands. Rather than settling things once and for all, the Hawkeye State’s caucus-goers chose to add a new level of uncertainty by elevating Santorum’s status. He became the latest in a series of second-tier contenders to surge against Romney, like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul before him. This points to a still divided Republican electorate, unwilling to rally behind the default front-runner Romney, but also unable to find a credible alternative for the long run.

New Hampshire could be the place where Romney finally seals the deal, turning the rest of the nomination process in a one-man show. As a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, which shares Boston’s large media market with the Granite State, Romney is already well known. He has built by far the strongest on-the-ground organization and has bet his entire presidential bid on a win here.  This state’s more moderate ideological make-up is a better fit for Romney than Iowa. In addition, independent voters in New Hampshire can take part in either party’s primary. It is no surprise than all polls have him leading the pack of GOP hopefuls here. In the most recent Suffolk University/7News poll, he tops the chart with 43% of support. In the end, high expectations could turn out to be Romney’s biggest challenge in New Hampshire, since anything short of a landslide victory would be interpreted as failure.

On the contrary, the low expectations set for Santorum could turn out to be his strongest suit. Unlike Romney, he doesn’t need to win. Any better-than-thought showing would fuel his campaign in preparation for the crucial battlegrounds of South Carolina and Florida. Already, Santorum is enjoying an Iowa bounce, both in terms of polling (according to a new Rasmussen Reports national survey, Santorum is second only to Romney, at 29%, with 21% of support) and in terms of fund-raising. In the days since coming dangerously close to winning Iowa, his campaign has brought in $2 million, more than the entire sum he raised in the third quarter of 2011, which was less than $1 million.

His long-stalled campaign suddenly energized, Santorum is now trying to build an organization on the fly in New Hampshire, a state to which he has dedicated decidedly fewer resources than Iowa. Pushing an economically populist, blue-collar message, the former senator from Pennsylvania is hoping to win the support of the Granite State’s conservatives, making up for the fact that Evangelical Christians, more akin to Santorum’s political views, are less influential here than in Iowa.

Among the other contenders, both Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich are campaigning hard in New Hampshire. For Gingrich, who had risen to the top of the polls in December before being drowned in a barrage of negative advertisements in Iowa, particularly by the pro-Romney super-pac Restore Our Future, the Granite State’s primary will be a make or break moment. If the former House Speaker fails to find new momentum here, he might be the next GOP candidate to leave the race. Angry at the attacks launched against him by his rivals, Gingrich played the survivor card at a recent rally in New Hampshire. “In this campaign so far, I’ve been dead once, resurrected, limping along, the front-runner, drowned in a tidal wave of Romney and Ron Paul negative ads, recovered and survived,” he said. 

Paul, who came a close third in Iowa, is expected to soldier on with his campaign and to continue receiving a steady level of support, guaranteed by the hard-core base of activists he has built through the years. But he remains an unlikely candidate for the GOP nomination. Some of his positions, in particular his isolationism in foreign policy, are so outside of the Republican mainstream as to make it nearly impossible for him to win a majority of the party’s delegates.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, who many thought would leave the race after his fifth place finish in Iowa, has instead pledged to keep going. He will, however, skip New Hampshire altogether, and prepare for a new push in the upcoming South Carolina and Florida primaries, where he might end up dueling Santorum for the support of religious conservatives, to the obvious benefit of Romney.

In the end, it could be Jon Huntsman to upend things in New Hampshire. At a recent event in the state, the former governor of Utah went for the underdog pitch, claiming that Santorum’s unexpected success in Iowa “suggested, more than anything else, that if you’re willing to get in a car and put in the hours that Rick Santorum is putting in, and working hard at the grass-roots level, you’ll have something to show for it.” On Thursday, the Boston Globe endorsed Huntsman over Romney, a disappointing turn of events for the former governor of Massachusetts, who was also snubbed by his home newspaper in 2007.

As for Romney, following his slim victory in Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor won the endorsement of once bitter rival McCain, while he had already put that of the Union Leader, New Hampshire’s most influential newspaper, in the bank several weeks ago.

Romney might carry New Hampshire in a landslide. Otherwise, the Granite State too, just like Iowa, could end in a late-night photo finish. In any case, since everybody already expects a Romney victory here anyway, things are unlikely to change fundamentally until at least South Carolina.