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The Granite State landscape certainly benefits Romney. While conservatives constituted 83 percent of the Iowa caucuses attendees, they were just 55 percent of 2008 New Hampshire GOP primary voters, according to the exit poll four years ago.
Even more important, while 58 percent of the Iowa caucuses attendees last week described themselves as evangelicals or born-again Christians, only 21 percent of New Hampshire voters described themselves that way.
So New Hampshire, which holds a primary, will produce a very different electorate from the 120,000 Iowans who showed up at the Republican caucuses.
But even if Romney does what nobody else has — finish first in Iowa and New Hampshire — the GOP race looks to be all about South Carolina.
A Romney victory in the Palmetto State isn’t impossible if Santorum, Gingrich and Perry all stay in the race through Jan. 21. After all, McCain won the South Carolina primary in 2008, and while Romney lacks the strong military credentials that undoubtedly helped McCain draw a third of the vote in the primary, the state does have an “establishment conservative” wing that should find Romney’s views and style appealing.
Four years ago, McCain and Romney combined to draw 48.5 percent of the South Carolina primary vote, with Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson combining for 45.4 percent.
While 60 percent of 2008 GOP primary voters in South Carolina self-identified as white evangelicals or born-again Christians — about the same number as in the 2008 Iowa GOP caucuses — a substantial 31 percent of 2008 Palmetto State Republican primary voters identified themselves as moderate or liberal, far more than the 17 percent who chose those labels last week in Iowa.
Romney has not yet won the Republican nomination, and anyone who calls his nomination inevitable simply hasn’t been watching the Republican electorate’s volatility.
The calendar and the makeup of the GOP field remains a problem for any of the conservatives in the race, but Romney’s limited appeal among the most conservative in the party shows no signs of changing. That said, Mitt Romney looks very much in the driver’s seat — at the moment.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.