CONCORD, New Hampshire -- If today's primary is a poker game, Mitt Romney is sitting on the tall stack and folding every hand. His extremely risk-averse strategy -- he holds well-choreographed rallies but rarely takes questions, either from voters or from the press -- is starting to annoy some Granite Staters.
At a Rick Santorum event in Nashua yesterday, a questioner praised Santorum for being genuine and open to taking questions, and said she was annoyed that Romney wouldn't. This wasn't the sort of socially conservative voter who would be a natural Santorum constituent -- she went on to self-identify as a marijuana user and ask about pot legalization. The polls bolster the sense one gets on the ground; like the poker player sacrificing all the blinds and/or antes (depending on what game we're playing), Romney's lead has been slowly ticking away.
It probably won't matter; the game ends today, and Romney will almost certainly still win. If the polls are right, Ron Paul is holding steady in second place; the real fight is for third, where Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich could all conceivably land.
Huntsman's late boom underscores the upside potential he squandered with an ill-conceived strategy from the start; rather than emphasize his fairly conservative record, he instead courted the elite media in a play for independents. This is the strategy that Huntsman's top adviser, John Weaver, pursued in John McCain's 2000 campaign; McCain did win New Hampshire, but he quickly hit a dead end. McCain's 2008 campaign only succeeded after firing Weaver, who in between the two McCain campaigns worked briefly for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, seemingly out of spite.
If not for Ron Paul, who no one would confuse with a moderate despite his appeal to non-Republicans, Huntsman might be near the front of the pack. He makes an pitch to war-weary voters that there's clearly an appetite for -- hence Paul's strength -- while eschewing Paul's blanket hostility to America's role as a global military power. Huntsman emphasizes that "we do have something to show for our efforts" in Afghanistan. "We've got the Taliban run out of power; al Qaeda has been dismantled, they're in sanctuaries, Osama bin Laden is no longer around," Huntsman says in his stump speech, which I caught at a townhall in Keene on Sunday. "We've had free elections; we've strengthened civil society. We've helped the police; we've helped the military. We have done what we can do as people -- I want those troops to come home."
This has obvious appeal to a significant slice of the electorate, and if Huntsman makes it into third today it will be in part because he's broken through near the end of the campaign by coupling this message with an image as a competent conservative. That third place is the best he can hope for is testament to the failure of his early strategy of what Tim Carney has correctly identified as liberal identity-politics signaling, marked by his well-known declaration on Twitter: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
Newt Gingrich, by contrast, whose record is in many ways substantively to the left of Huntsman's, is styling himself as the red-meat candidate. At a town hall event yesterday in Manchester, he accused President Obama of "Saul Alinsky radicalism" and called him "the most radical president in history" within the first few minutes of his speech. He later hit Mitt Romney as a "Massachusetts moderate" who can't draw a contrast with Obama; in the press availability after the town hall, a reporter asked why a Massachusetts moderate can't draw a contrast with the most radical president in American history. Gingrich answered that healthcare would be Romney's Achilles' heel on the contrast-drawing front, which is true, but the exchange laid bare how over-the-top Newt's rhetoric can be. One gets the feeling that this erstwhile friend of Nancy Pelosi's and Al Sharpton's doth protest too much.
Gingrich has been sinking in the polls, though he's still close to Huntsman and Santorum; his late endorsement from Todd Palin (and earlier endorsement from the Union Leader) may give him a cushion. But Huntsman and especially Santorum look stronger on the stump; of the three, Gingrich seems least likely to win the fight for third.
That, at least, is how it looks this morning. New Hampshire has surprised us before; we'll see tonight if it does so again.