DERRY, N.H. — Intentional or not, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) revealed over the weekend just how important a strong victory in Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary is to GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney.
“We don’t just need a win in New Hampshire, we need a landslide. Because guess where he’s going next? He’s going to South Carolina. Mitt Romney’s going to win South Carolina, by the way. But let’s make it a little bit easier for him,” Haley said Saturday at a rally attended by more than 1,000 Romney supporters here. “All eyes are on New Hampshire, they’re all watching you, and they’re watching you to see how strong of a support you’re going to send him to South Carolina with.”
Palmetto State voters are typically influenced by the outcomes in Iowa and New Hampshire. In fact, Romney has climbed in the polls in South Carolina following his narrow victory in the Hawkeye State caucuses.
Romney’s generally solid performance in two weekend debates appeared unlikely to upend the current dynamic of the race in New Hampshire. A Suffolk University daily tracking poll released Sunday showed Romney in front with 35 percent, followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 20 percent, ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman with 11 percent, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) at 9 percent and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) with 8 percent.
Just how big a victory Romney will garner in New Hampshire appears to be the major element of uncertainty in this race in the waning hours of the campaign. That, and who will finish second. Granite State voters have a history of breaking late and disappointing frontrunners, and Gingrich, Huntsman and Santorum are all hoping to crowd out Paul for a strong second- or third-place finish that could propel them into contention in South Carolina.
Santorum left New Hampshire on Sunday to campaign in South Carolina. Texas Gov. Rick Perry avoided the Granite State altogether to focus down south, traveling to New England only to participate in the debates. The Gingrich campaign contends that the former Speaker’s performance in the weekend debates has put the candidate back on track to compete for New Hampshire and South Carolina, after a disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa had called his political viability into question.
“The primary here is already a success,” Gingrich said at a news conference in Manchester on Sunday. “We’ve clearly begun to set the stage for South Carolina.”
Romney did take fire in the two debates, particularly Sunday, responding strongly much of the time and committing no major gaffes even when he faltered. All six candidates had good and bad moments in the weekend debates, events that have been influential in determining voter support, or lack thereof, since the campaign began in earnest last spring. The next debate is scheduled in one week in Myrtle Beach, S.C.