The New Hampshire primary isn’t as competitive as the Iowa caucuses, but the middle of the field is pretty closely clustered together. So here’s where I think the candidates will end up, in order of finish.
1. Mitt Romney — The one constant in this tumultuous presidential race has been Mitt Romney’s wide lead in New Hampshire, which has been immune to the surges of various anti-Romneys. In the Granite State, Romney polls well even among conservatives, Tea Party sympathizers, evangelicals, and young people — voters who have resisted the Mittster’s charms elsewhere. It helps that the Republican voting blocs least enamored of Romney are also less numerous here than in Iowa.
The only thing Romney has to worry about is that the media will decide his margin of victory isn’t big enough. He’s been sliding from about 40 percent to about 35 percent in recent polls. Can the second place finisher get 25 percent? Remember that George Bush beat Pat Buchanan by 16 points in NH in 1992, a performance that was considered as good as a defeat.
2. Ron Paul — Paul’s numbers have also been steady, ranging from the high teens to the low 20s for a while now. That should be good enough for second place. The Live Free or Die State has always had a libertarian streak and Paul has gotten an assist from Free State Project supporters, whose numbers are up somewhat since 2008. If Paul somehow slips below second place, however, there will be major questions about his get-out-the-vote operation and ability to close after getting nudged out of the top two by a late-charging opponent in Iowa. Can they avoid a replay in New Hampshire?
3. Jon Huntsman — Huntsman’s attempt to be the John McCain of this cycle — minus the bellicose foreign policy — seems likely to come up short. But this is the state where he has spent the most time and devoted the most resources. A couple polls show him making a run at second place, nearly all the recent polling finds Huntsmentum. I think Huntsman’s investment in NH will pay off.
4. Rick Santorum — Am I misunderestimating Santorum again? All last week I had planned to put him in third place and wouldn’t have been shocked to see him surge into second. By all accounts, Santorum is getting big crowds in New Hampshire and his Iowa win/near-win/moral victory-either-way caught a lot of us pointy-headed Washington journalists napping. But his numbers haven’t really moved since his initial post-Iowa bump into the double digits and he hasn’t even really put away Newt Gingrich, much less Paul or Huntsman. What pinned it for me is that very few people I’ve talked to who are on the ground in New Hampshire think he’ll finish in the top three.
5. Newt Gingrich — The former House speaker looks like he is running a kamikaze mission more than a presidential campaign. He’s going negative on Romney while siphoning votes from possible Romney alternatives. But he has the Union Leader endorsement and he continues to hover around 10 percent. The question is what impact, if any, New Hampshire has on Gingrich and Santorum’s numbers in South Carolina.
6. Rick Perry — Perry isn’t actively competing in New Hampshire, though it’s supposedly a point of contention within the campaign that Dave Carney made him ever visit. At this point it will be a victory if the former national frontrunner beats Buddy Roemer. Perry clearly hopes New Hampshire will take some of the wind out of Santorum’s sails without doing anything to help Gingrich. Fred Thompson managed to finish third in South Carolina despite getting just 1.2 percent of the vote in NH. But Thompson also finished third in Iowa, not fifth. It’s not clear what Perry does for his chances in South Carolina — where he’s only polling around 5 percent — by looking like an asterik candidate.