MANCHESTER, N.H. — About 40 percent of voters in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary cast their ballots for either Texas Rep. Ron Paul or former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who finished second and third behind the “It’s His Turn” Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Adding in Romney’s 39 percent, the top three finishers in the Granite State got nearly 80 percent of the vote — even though none of them can credibly claim to represent the mainstream of GOP conservatism that has developed over the past three decades. Romney, of course, has been on both sides of every important issue during his political career, having even denied any fealty to “Reagan-Bush” during his unsuccessful 1994 Senate race. Ron Paul’s foreign policy views are not merely at odds with mainstream Republicanism, but arguably put him to the left of President Obama. And Huntsman has not only embraced same-sex civil unions and global-warming theory, but has praised the Democratic president who appointed him ambassador to China.
Thus in New Hampshire, a state where independents are eligible to vote in the GOP primary, barely 20 percent of voters chose either of the conservative candidates — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — who competed here. Gingrich and Santorum each got less than 10 percent of the vote, providing the only real suspense of the night with their see-saw battle for fourth place. Texas Gov. Rick Perry didn’t even bother to campaign in the Granite State, and got about 1,500 votes. And so the first-in-the-nation primary ends with the fight for the Republican nomination exactly where it was when the campaign started, with Romney as the pre-emptive favorite.
Has it all been a colossal waste of time? How did we get back where we began? We are now eight months into the 2012 presidential campaign, if we date its beginning to the first Republican debate last May in Greenville, S.C. Only two of the candidates who participated in that debate — Paul and Santorum — will still be in the race as the campaign trail heads back to South Carolina, which holds its primary a week from Saturday. Of the other three candidates in that May 5 debate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out after a disappointing third-place finish in the Aug. 13 Iowa GOP Straw Poll, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson quit last month and announced he would instead seek the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination, and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain quit in early December after being battered by unproven allegations of sexual misconduct. Perry joined the field in August and zoomed ahead in the polls, but his lead collapsed quickly after a series of September debate blunders. Gingrich’s campaign survived a seemingly crippling start when his staff walked out en masse and subsequently signed up with Perry. However, it seemed Gingrich might become the last man standing among the “not Romney” candidates, when he soared upward in the polls in November. But he was devastated by attack ads — from Romney, Paul, and Perry — and finished a weak fourth in Iowa.
After another fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, Gingrich appears now to be running a campaign of personal vengeance against Romney. A Gingrich-allied “super PAC,” bankrolled to the tune of $5 million by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, is planning an attack onslaught against Romney featuring a documentary about the GOP frontrunner’s tenure at the investment firm Bain Capital. When Mitt Romney Came to Town depicts Romney as responsible for shutting down American companies and leaving laid-off workers to fend for themselves. Rick Perry picked up on this theme Tuesday in South Carolina when he described Romney’s firm as “vultures … sitting out there on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick, and then they swoop in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that, and they leave the skeleton.”
This is scarcely the sort of rhetoric expected of conservative Republicans, and everyone who watched Romney’s victory speech here knew who he was referring to when he said, “President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him.” Indeed, those Republicans still intent on stopping the “inevitable” Romney have good reason to be desperate, because if the well-funded frontrunner wins South Carolina, the 2012 GOP campaign could be effectively over before it has really even begun.
What little hope remains of stopping Romney at this point would appear to rest with South Carolina voters, and even there the most recent polls show Romney leading. Members of the national press corps who have been ensconced here in Manchester the past week seem now nearly unanimously agreed that the Republican campaign is now all over but the shouting. One network news analyst, getting into a cab outside the Radisson Hotel near midnight, paused long enough to ask a nearby reporter, “Who do you think he’ll pick for his running mate?” And there was no need to explain who “he” is.