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Why Santorum’s Fate Hinges on New Hampshire

Politico has a piece up today arguing that “N.H. is next, but S.C. is key,” as the headline puts it. The piece goes on to explain: 

The Republican presidential candidates have swept into New Hampshire so swiftly, you might be tricked into thinking that next Tuesday’s primary really matters.
But with Mitt Romney’s dominance here still unshaken, the other members of the GOP field are already plotting to make their strongest stand against the national front-runner in South Carolina — a conservative state in the heart of a region in which Romney has long struggled to break through. …
Republicans in and outside the presidential campaigns believe South Carolina is the best — and maybe the only — opportunity left to put Romney’s grasp on the nomination in real peril.

I agree with the basic logic here—South Carolina will tell us whether or not we’re going to have a real race for the GOP nomination. But that makes New Hampshire incredibly important, not meaningless, as the piece suggests. 

The basic state of play today is this: Mitt Romney came out of Iowa more or less flat—the murmur of a boost he might have gotten from his margin-of-error victory was offset by questions the press and his rivals promptly raised about why he couldn’t expand his support after all the time and money he’d spent there. 

But, of course, flat is fine for Romney. He’s the frontrunner. If the status quo prevails over the next few weeks, he’ll be the nominee. 

Rick Santorum, for his part, came out of Iowa with real upward momentum. But it was dampened by the fact that he couldn’t officially proclaim himself the winner. By the fact that his well-received caucus-night speech didn’t air until most of the country had gone to sleep. And by the fact that, as the Times poignantly reports today, he schlepped to New Hampshire by prop-jet, which deposited him in the state too late to appear on the local news. 

The upshot is that, while Iowa helped Santorum begin to consolidate the conservative and anti-Romney portion of the GOP electorate, that work is far from over. It is, in fact, sufficiently incomplete that Rick Perry believes it’s worth his while to make a play for these voters in South Carolina, while a group of evangelical muckety-mucks has scheduled a conclave to mull over who their standard bearer should be. Even Newt Gingrich harbors delusions of uniting these disaffected Republicans behind his beefy posterior. (Though knee-capping Romney appears to be motivation enough for him to stay in the race.) 

Which brings us back to New Hampshire. Romney will almost certainly win, so first place is uninteresting. But if Santorum can exceed expectations with a strong second-place finish, or a respectable third behind Ron Paul (who is effectively running in a parallel universe), he will significantly accelerate the aforementioned consolidation process. In that case, even if Perry and Gingrich compete in South Carolina, they will be marginal candidates. The only real fight will be between Romney and Santorum, a scenario that should fill Team Romney with dread.

But if Santorum can’t break out of, say, the low double-digits in New Hampshire—if he ends up bunched with Gingrich and Jon Hunstman there—the nomination fight will abruptly end. That result would ensure that the anti-Romney vote stays fractured in South Carolina, guaranteeing Romney a reasonably good showing and sending him on his way to the prize he’s sought since 2007 (or, you know, 1967).

So, yes, South Carolina will hand down a verdict that will likely stand for the rest of the race. But the substance of that verdict will be set next Tuesday in New Hampshire. 

follow me on @noamscheiber