Would 3 straight wins give him the nomination?
After the knife-edge win for Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses this week, most of those watching the race for the Republican nomination will have moved on to the first primary proper: New Hampshire. Thatâ€™s only natural as it is the next state to vote but with all expectations that Romney will gain a healthy win there, it may not be as important as it sometimes can be in weeding out losers, tripping up the complacent or propelling outsiders forward.
New Hampshire really ought to be Romney territory. Itâ€™s next door to Massachusetts, where he was governor (though it doesnâ€™t always follow that this is an advantage), and his campaign has been targeting the state strongly. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum spent a lot more time than Romney in Iowa; New Hampshire was originally the bounce-back after what could be explained away as a loss in unfertile territory for him.
Expectations have now changed. Romney is the front-runner in every sense coming out of Iowa (eight votes might be a minute margin of victory but itâ€™s also the difference between first vs. second, or win vs. loss – hugely important in PR terms). New Hampshire does have a reputation for throwing in surprise results but thatâ€™s more to do with not being taken for granted rather than being deliberately perverse, and the attention Romneyâ€™s paid the state means he shouldnâ€™t stumble.
Even if he does take a good win out of the New England state, itâ€™s unlikely to do much immediately to the dynamics of the race: results meeting anticipations never do. What it would do however is greatly increase the stakes for the next primary down the line, on 21 January in South Carolina.
A third win on the bounce there for Romney – this time in a southern state – would give him almost unstoppable momentum. By contrast, a defeat would throw the whole race wide open again by identifying a principal rival and probably by clearing the field of some also-rans as well.
What polling there has been in South Carolina suggests that a credible alternative could push Romney extremely hard. The question is whether anyone can fulfil that role.
Santorum emerged from Iowa as Romneyâ€™s chief rival but he shot up from under the radar so fast that he escaped serious critical attention from the other contenders. Thatâ€™s unlikely to continue and there are reasons why he was the sixth or seventh choice for the Not Romney Republicans. Also, anything other than a solid second in New Hampshire will undermine his position as leading challenger, and in the last poll there he was 10 points behind Ron Paul, albeit on an upwards trajectory.
A comeback by Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich isnâ€™t impossible but would be a clear sign of unreality and desperation among the primaryâ€™s voters were it to happen, and is less likely in an open primary like South Carolina where independents can vote.
There are strong reasons why all the candidates could and perhaps should lose South Carolina but one of them has to win it. Assuming Santorumâ€™s star shines as briefly as Gingrichâ€™s and Paulâ€™s did, the entire field other than Huntsman will have been viewed in the spotlight and found wanting (and Huntsman will not get a viewing with Romney in the game). If that is the case -and I believe it will be – itâ€™s not quite game, set and match to Mitt, but it would be two sets and a break up.