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.
Taking Nothing for Granted
The final days of the New Hampshire campaign have been a tale of five candidates with competing priorities.
Romney is looking for a big win to send him to South Carolina with the momentum of a frontrunner; Santorum wants to prove that his surprising top finish in Iowa was not a fluke; Paul, who has been running second in most Granite State polls, wants to show that he remains a threat despite a disappointing third-place finish in Iowa; and Gingrich and Huntsman are counting on New Hampshire to bolster their national viability.
Romney, the prohibitive frontrunner here since Day 1, moved over the weekend to close the deal, something he failed to do four years ago, when he came from in front to lose to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Romney, who owns a home in central New Hampshire and has logged countless hours on the trail, implored supporters at every campaign stop not to take his high poll numbers, and victory, for granted and grow complacent.
The Romney campaign appears confident that the support it has cultivated among identified voters will hold, leaving his team to focus on turnout. In an effort that appeared unmatched by Romney’s competitors, his campaign on Saturday sent out its last mail piece and unleashed a volunteer army of 750 to knock on an estimated 10,000 doors and make 150,000 person-to-person phone calls, with additional calls set to be made by a paid contractor.
Romney supporters say their candidate has made great strides since the 2008 race, and they sounded confident of a win on Tuesday.
“The difference this time: He shows more confidence, he dwells more on the economy, which is what our problem is,” said Brendan Laffey, a 73-year-old retiree from Center Harbor who traveled to Tilton on Friday evening to see Romney. “He shows that he’s more presidential. He shows that he’s more of a leader than any of them, really, to get things done, that he can implement things. I saw Gingrich last night — a great man, brilliant person — but I don’t believe he can implement what he talks about. Romney can.”
A Second Look at Santorum
Santorum’s tendency to speak unscripted on the stump — and his staunch social conservatism that puts him at odds with most voters here — offers a sharp contrast to Romney’s disciplined focus on President Barack Obama and the economy.
With one week between Iowa and New Hampshire, Santorum did not have time to build an organization that could rival Romney’s, despite raising about $1 million a day since his near victory in the Hawkeye State. But Santorum drew large crowds at every stop, and Granite State voters, who sometimes have a habit of turning against frontrunners, were giving the former Senator a second look.
Rebuffing suggestions that his brand of conservatism was politically problematic in New Hampshire, which has a strong libertarian streak and where independents can influence primaries, Santorum repeatedly invoked Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 lost Iowa to George H.W. Bush but proceeded to win here.
Marian Schwaller Carney, 54, a pastor who also works in sales, was previously high on Herman Cain and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who have since exited the race. After attending a Santorum town hall meeting in her hometown of Dublin on Friday, she’s leaning toward the former Senator, although she concedes there is still a chance she might vote for Romney.
“Iowa caught my attention,” Schwaller Carney said. “This man is presidential, whatever that means, and I didn’t really used to think that.”
Paul’s events were marked by large, enthusiastic crowds and a quality mostly absent from those of his competitors: young people. Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the candidate’s son, drew nearly 500 people at a Saturday town hall meeting.
Ron Paul supporters have remained positive about the progress of the campaign, despite the Congressman’s lower- than-expected finish in Iowa and the fact that most polls have shown him to have a ceiling of about 20 percent.
Ann Buckman, a 27-year-old from Manchester who works in manufacturing, said Paul’s ideas “are spreading like wildfire,” which is just as important to her as whether the Congressman wins.
Buckman added that she believes Paul is “the only one that can beat Obama because the rest of the candidates really represent the status quo, and they’re not much different from him. ... I think the [campaign] is going great.”
Sen Mary Landrieu, D-La., poses for a selfie with LSU football fans as she campaigns at tailgate parties on the Louisiana State University campus before the LSU-Mississippi State game on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Buy photo here.