New Hampshire's overwhelming victory for Romney - despite increasingly pointed attacks from GOP rivals against his role in laying off workers as a venture capitalist and his moderate record as Massachusetts governor in the 2000s - didn't guarantee the nomination for a New England neighbor, but it made him very hard to stop.
The clear message from voters in the Granite State - both Republicans and thousands of independents who are disaffected from President Obama and who voted in the GOP contest - is that they are looking for the candidate with the best chance of winning. Network exit polls showed that one-third of New Hampshire voters cited "electability" as their No. 1 factor, and only one in seven said they were seeking a "true conservative," a big drop-off from Iowa, where evangelicals propelled Rick Santorum to a virtual tie with Romney.
"They want a candidate they believe can match up with President Obama," said G. Terry Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall College political scientist and pollster. "There's an old saying that in the primaries you vote your heart and in the general [election] you vote your mind - but these Republicans have become realists about beating Obama." At a packed Romney rally Monday afternoon at a metal-fabricating plant in Hudson, N.H., well-coiffed retirees and Republican regulars repeatedly cited his business experience as founder of Bain Capital as a huge positive, as well as familiarity with his record in neighboring Massachusetts and a sense that no one else was more likely to beat Obama.
"He can get this country back to work again," said Ray Hayes, a retiree and Vietnam veteran from Milford, N.H., after a brief Romney speech that was long on patriotic applause lines and short on policy specifics. Last night, a confident Romney launched into a victory speech less than a half-hour after the last polls closed at 8 p.m., and lashed back at critics of his jobs record at Bain Capital. "I stand ready to lead us down a different path," he said, "where we're lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by resentment of success."
The New Hampshire win - although just short of the high expectations of some pundits who thought Romney could pull in 40 percent - should have his chief rivals resenting his political success, if not his wealth. Indeed, Romney could have things close to wrapped up after the next primary Jan. 21 in South Carolina. Here's why:
* Ron Paul, who finished a strong second, may have peaked. The libertarian congressman from Texas placed a surprisingly strong second in New Hampshire, thanks to his support from under-30 voters and independents. Indeed, Paul roughly tied with Romney among the large number of independents in the Granite State - but South Carolina and other upcoming key states are closed to Republicans, and party stalwarts generally reject Paul's isolationist and antiwar foreign policy.
* The schedule is also cruel for Jon Huntsman, a solid third yesterday after shunning Iowa and betting the farm on independent-minded voters in New Hampshire. It's hard to see how the self-styled GOP moderate keeps any mild momentum going into ultraconservative South Carolina, a tea-party hotbed where primary voters in 2010 rejected a GOP congressman after he told voters to "turn off Glenn Beck."
* The Rick Santorum surge didn't live free in New Hampshire - it died. He finished fourth, running a few votes ahead of right-wing rival Newt Gingrich - a result that makes his mission in South Carolina difficult, especially with a pro-Gingrich billionaire committed to spending $5 million in the Palmetto State.
The bottom line after last night is that Romney is the only non-incumbent Republican ever to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, and a deeply divided right wing may guarantee a South Carolina victory as well.
Said the Pennsylvania pundit Madonna: "This is an ideal scenario for Romney."