Fergus Cullen: In New Hampshire, the wild card race is heating up
With 10 weeks until the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Mitt Romney maintains 40 percent of the New Hampshire vote and a 22-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average of Granite State polls. It may be time for the other candidates to cede first place and start playing for the wild card.
Could Romney be defeated in New Hampshire? Anything's possible, but Romney is no paper tiger frontrunner, like Bob Dole in 1996, who had most of the endorsements but nearly faded to third. No evidence suggests the Romney campaign is on the verge of collapse. Romney's support is not a mile wide and an inch deep. It's more like Fortress New Hampshire.
Romney's campaign has been nearly error-free. The candidate is consistently strong on the stump and in debates. He is disciplined, not prone to gaffes or self-inflicted wounds. The campaign is adequately financed and has strong infrastructure. Nor has Romney gotten lazy or taken things for granted. He's done about as many New Hampshire town hall meetings as the rest of the field combined.
No one candidate is consolidating the not-Romney vote, and time is running short. When John McCain came from way behind to defeat George W. Bush in 2000 by 48-30 percent, McCain was on the move by this time and had made it a two-man race. A September, 1999, University of New Hampshire poll had Bush at 45 percent, Elizabeth Dole at 15, and McCain at 14. A Dartmouth poll released on Nov. 10, 1999, had Bush 44, McCain 31.
More likely than a Romney collapse is the candidate finishing second sharing headlines with Romney, making Romney at least partially a victim of his own success. The race for second is wide open and could be won with as little as 15-20 percent.
Any candidate who wins 10 percent of the vote walks away with at least one delegate. Ron Paul seems on track to reach that threshold - something he fell just short of in 2008 - but not to get much more than that. Despite hyper-dedicated supporters, Paul has made no effort to mainstream his appeal.
Herman Cain is second in the RCP average at 18 percent, but if Cain were running for governor of New Hampshire, he couldn't take The Pledge against a broad-based tax. His 9-9-9 plan raises taxes on most New Hampshire residents and subjects everyone to a 9 percent sales tax. Cain's organization is invisible, and he's hardly campaigned here. Cain may not break double digits on primary day.
Rick Perry has fallen to just 3 percent in New Hampshire in the RCP average. He didn't help himself with his speech at Cornerstone's banquet in Manchester last Friday. Maybe 500 people saw it live, but a million watched it on YouTube and are reaching their own conclusions about whether Perry was affected by medication or merely giddy. 'Presidential' is not the word that comes to mind. It's hard to regain lost momentum. Perry's chances seem better in other states.
Newt Gingrich is contributing in the debates, and his campaign is at last showing signs of organization, but his candidacy is still based on cable and the Internet, and that's not enough. Rick Santorum has done well among social-issue activists, but such voters are relatively few in New Hampshire. Michele Bachmann? The last candidate to show such disregard for New Hampshire, Fred Thompson, received 2,956 votes in 2008.
That leaves Jon Huntsman, the one candidate with the most upside potential in New Hampshire. Unlike Perry, Bachmann and Cain, Huntsman isn't trending in the wrong direction. He's investing more time in New Hampshire than any other candidate is. He's still becoming known. His message - I'm a civil, responsible adult with mainstream appeal - needs more focus, but there's a market for it here.
Romney may have the division title wrapped up, but Huntsman's got an edge for the wild card.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, is former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.