It’s tempting to believe that anything that boosts Mitt Romney’s rivals is bad news for Romney himself. In fact, that’s not the case, and today’s Boston Globe endorsement of Jon Hunstman illustrates why.
According to the latest Suffolk University tracking poll, Romney has a 23-point lead in New Hampshire over Ron Paul, his closest competitor. Barring a near-miraculous turn of events, Romney will win next Tuesday’s primary contest. The real question, as I noted yesterday, is whether any of the non-Paul contenders can use New Hampshire to establish himself as a credible alternative. (Paul has a largely independent base of support and is running his own one-man race at this point.) With his virtual tie in Iowa, Santorum is the leading candidate to do so. In fact, the same Suffolk poll now shows him third in New Hampshire at 11 percent, up from a mere 3 percent on Monday.
But the only way Santorum can consolidate the anti-Romney vote is if he pulls away from the rest of the pack in the Granite State. Otherwise, the field will stay fractured heading into South Carolina, helping Romney secure a win that will effectively make him the nominee.
And therein lies the problem: According to the Suffolk poll, Huntsman and Newt Gingrich are currently bunched up right behind Santorum, each with 9 percent. Anything that helps Huntsman or Gingrich, like a high-profile endorsement, makes it more likely that these candidates finish near Santorum on Tuesday, thereby denying him the separation he desperately needs.
Granted, I doubt we’ve seen the end of Santorum’s post-Iowa bounce. I’d expect it to keep growing over the next few days. (In fact, Suffolk’s topline number clearly understates Santorum’s support, since the poll takes a two-day sample and the second night must have been higher than the first to bring up the overall number.) Moreover, the Globe is hardly required reading among New Hampshire Republicans, so we shouldn't overstate the impact of its endorsement.
Still, with so much riding on his success at breaking out of the non-Romney pack, Santorum can only afford to see the other candidates siphon off so much momentum before it kills his chances of becoming the clear Romney alternative. And if Santorum can’t become the alternative to Romney, it’s very unlikely that anyone else will, given how quickly these contests are coming up, and how damaged the other candidates are. All in all, Romney has to be satisfied with this development.
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