HOLLIS, N.H. -- J.D.'s Tavern at the Radisson Inn in Manchester was crowded Saturday night with the elite of America's political media. Famous faces from TV news mingled with less-famous but nevertheless influential writers from major publications. Waiters brought food and beverages -- and still more beverages -- as midnight passed in the hours after yet another nationally televised Republican presidential debate. One of the more famous bylines among the journalistic throng delivered a harshly negative verdict on the proceedings that had just aired on ABC.
"They were weak," said the writer. "They didn't bring it."
By "they," he meant the various challengers to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The pre-game forecast for Saturday night's debate was that the non-Romney conservatives would rush to attack the man who is the overwhelming favorite to win Tuesday's primary here in New Hampshire. But the promised assault on Romney -- in a debate that had been hyped up like a professional wrestling match -- never materialized, much to the disappointment of the journalist in J.D.'s Tavern.
"Look, I'm a reporter," he said. "You know I'd love this thing to go all the way to the convention, but… C'mon."
His point was that the other candidates, by missing opportunities to take the fight to Romney, had helped the well-funded frontrunner move perceptibly closer to becoming the inevitable GOP nominee. And it was hard to dispute his conclusion, despite my own hope -- one shared by most other conservatives -- that somehow this year the Republican Party can avoid its predictable habit of nominating the "It's His Turn" candidate. It has been alleged, by Sarah Palin among others, that the "mainstream media" are more or less conspiring to hand the Republican nomination to Romney. However, there are many in the press corps who would very much love to cover a long and bitterly contested GOP battle that goes all the way to the August convention in Tampa. Such a Republican donnybrook becomes far less likely if, as polls now indicate, Romney scores a decisive victory here in the Granite State. Thus it was that some reporters had hoped that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum would turn Saturday night's debate into a sustained beatdown of Romney, but they did not. Romney escaped that debate with nary a scratch. While his conservative rivals committed no major gaffes, neither did any of them hit Romney with the kind of shattering blow that would undermine his status as the favorite to win New Hampshire. And if Romney adds a strong New Hampshire victory to his razor-thin win last week in Iowa, he will enhance what Amy Walter of ABC has called his "mantle" of inevitability.
The fight that didn't happen Saturday night, however, finally broke out Sunday morning in a Meet the Press debate whose moderator, David Gregory, has seldom been accused of objectivity. Goaded by the liberal host, Gingrich and Santorum eagerly took their shots at the leader. Gingrich called Romney "a relatively timid Massachusetts moderate … who I think will have a very hard time in a debate with President Obama." Next came Santorum who said that, in Romney's failed 1994 Senate bid against Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, Romney "wouldn't stand for conservative principles. He ran from Ronald Reagan. And he said he was going to be to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights, on abortion, a whole host of other issues." Evidently mindful of his own need to appeal to conservatives who seek a feisty champion to go up against Obama, Santorum continued: "We want someone, when the time gets tough -- and it will in this election -- we want someone who's going to stand up and fight for the conservative principles, not bail out and not run, and not run to the left of Ted Kennedy."
As combative as Romney's rivals were Sunday morning, some said it was too little, too late, coming just two days before Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary here. Veteran political analyst Michael Barone suggested that Romney locked up the nomination Saturday night, and American Spectator alumnus Philip Klein lamented: "Had this all happened in September, we may be looking at a race where Perry had just won Iowa and was well ahead in South Carolina, while Huntsman was nipping at Romney in New Hampshire. But this isn't September." Klein noted Santorum's late emergence as "the leading conservative alternative to Romney," but observed that what Republicans are "left with is a situation in which Romney is so far ahead in his quest for the GOP nomination, that barring a major catastrophe, he's unlikely to lose." Both Barone and Klein, like most other journalists covering the campaign in New Hampshire, discount the possibility of Santorum's post-Iowa momentum making a dent here. The crowds showing up to see Santorum in New Hampshire -- including at two events Saturday here in Hollis -- are large and enthusiastic, however, and the possibility of an unexpected surge for Santorum is one of the uncertain factors in the final hours of the Granite State campaign.
Polls indicate two certainties in Tuesday's result: Romney will win, whatever his margin of victory, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry will finish a distant sixth, following on the humiliating fifth-place finish in Iowa that nearly caused the former frontrunner to quit the race. Perry hasn't actively campaigned here recently, and has now apparently invested all his hopes in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. Polls show Texas Rep. Ron Paul a solid second place in New Hampshire, where his libertarian message meshes well with the state's "Live Free Or Die" motto. Tuesday may prove the high point of Paul's campaign, while it will likely be the last hurrah for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. The Obama administration's erstwhile ambassador to Beijing provided a comic moment Saturday night when he criticized Romney's anti-China rhetoric in Mandarin Chinese. The improbable GOP candidate whom I long ago dubbed "Governor Asterisk" has been unable to break above the low teens in New Hampshire polls, despite extensive advertising and near-constant campaigning here. No one expects Huntsman to finish better than third Tuesday, and if he can't win here, he has no real hope of winning elsewhere.
These relative certainties leave little dramatic tension to be resolved by Tuesday's vote. Observers will watch closely to see which of Romney's two leading conservative challengers, Gingrich or Santorum, finishes higher in New Hampshire. Most polls show them bunched together with Huntsman in the fight for third place and, if Huntsman's candidacy will have no other impact on the 2012 race, by finishing third or fourth, he could relegate Gingrich and/or Santorum to an embarrassing spot in the back of the pack in the Granite State.
The other closely watched factor will be Romney's final percentage here in the state that has been his must-win "firewall" from the beginning of the yearlong campaign. Romney's share in the influential Real Clear Politics average of New Hampshire polls has increased from a low of 33.3 percent on Dec. 17 to 40.2 percent as of Sunday evening. Yet the most recent Suffolk University tracking poll seemed to indicate a slight decline in Romney's support, down to 35 percent. Should Romney finish in the mid-30s Tuesday, he would be perceived as still vulnerable going into the crucial South Carolina primary ten days later. But if Romney gets much more than 40 percent in New Hampshire, the sense of his inevitability could overwhelm what remains of conservative resistance to the "It's His Turn" candidate.
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