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Handicapping New Hampshire Expectations

After months of campaigning, the Republican candidates face the voters in New Hampshire today. Though there’s little doubt Mitt Romney will finish first, there is plenty of uncertainty about his margin of victory and the order of finish. After being buffeted by harsh attacks in recent days, Romney’s hopes of maintaining his frontrunner status depends on a big win in New Hampshire. Though South Carolina is more of a do-or-die situation than New Hampshire for Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, a better or worse than expected performance will heavily impact their chances of surviving in the race. As for Jon Huntsman, the New Hampshire primary is his one and only shot at making a run at Romney. With that in mind, here is our handicap sheet for the expectations for each of the candidates:

Mitt Romney: He’s taken a pounding from his rivals in the last few days, and the “like to fire people” gaffe may also hurt him. Nevertheless, the last three New Hampshire polls show him ahead by anywhere from 17 to 24 points and getting 33 to 41 percent of the vote. That’s good news for the candidate, but the bar for Romney is set very high here. Anything less than 35-40 percent of the vote and a 10-point margin of victory will be construed as a defeat. On the other end of the spectrum, a Romney vote of over 40 percent with a lead of more than 15 percent in a six-candidate race will have to be seen as a sign of strength that will help give him the momentum in South Carolina to try for an unprecedented sweep of the first three states to vote. This race is Romney’s to lose, and New Hampshire is the state where he needs to start to prove his inevitability is no myth.

Jon Huntsman: Huntsman has gone all-in in New Hampshire and anything less than a relatively close second place there will finish him. Polls show him currently in third with 11 to 16 percent support with a mini-surge, but he needs to do far better than that. If Huntsman can get to 20 percent, that will be considered a stunning upset, and he will be the subject of a lot of positive spin. But even if enough Democrats and independents choose to vote in the GOP primary for his sake, it’s hard to see where he goes from there, since the prospects for a similar showing elsewhere are slim and none. Odds are, he falls far short of that goal and New Hampshire is the effective end of his campaign.

Newt Gingrich: Despite the support of the most influential newspaper in the state and a late infusion of money and negative advertising about Romney, Gingrich is stuck in the second tier here with polls showing him only with anywhere from 8 to 12 percent of the vote. At this point, nobody expects much from Gingrich, so getting as much as 15 percent and third place would be considered a moral victory and possibly breathe some life into his sinking campaign. Second place would get him back in the conversation as a viable candidate. But above all, he needs to avoid a fifth place finish in a race where only five candidates are actively contesting the state (Rick Perry is concentrating his faltering hopes on South Carolina). Finishing last among those who showed up will convince many still thinking of voting for him in South Carolina to switch to Rick Santorum or Perry.

Rick Santorum: After his amazing showing in Iowa, Santorum has hit a speed bump in New Hampshire where his lack of money and organization has left him with little hope for another upset. Last Wednesday, in the heady aftermath of his 8-vote loss in Iowa, there was some talk of him riding that momentum to second place in New Hampshire, but the polls show him stuck at 10-11 percent, fighting with Gingrich for fourth. Santorum’s minimum goal should be to stay ahead of Newt. Doing so and especially beating him by five or more points is what he needs to convince wavering South Carolina conservatives that he, and not Gingrich or Perry, is their last best hope to stop Romney. Had he chosen not to compete in the state, he might have avoided the comparison but having done so, Santorum, like Gingrich, needs to avoid a fifth place finish which would erase a lot of the momentum he got from Iowa.

Ron Paul: The libertarian extremist is in second place in all the polls and with anti-war/radical Democrats and independents free to vote for him this is another state where a good showing is within his grasp. A close second for Paul would give most Republicans heartburn and allow Democrats to spend the next month talking about the radicalization of the GOP. But even that won’t give Paul a chance for the nomination. On the other hand, should he slip to third, he will cease to be the object of much conversation and, though he will stay in the race, mark the end of his relevance in 2012.

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