I've spent the last few days arguing that there’s only one plausible way to make Mitt Romney sweat this nomination contest: Rick Santorum has to beat expectations in New Hampshire so that he comes into South Carolina with a head of steam and consolidates the anti-Romney vote there. To do that, Santorum doesn't need to win New Hampshire, where Romney is all but assured of victory. But he does need to finish well ahead of Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich, who constitute the rest of the contending pack. (I don’t include Ron Paul among the contenders.)
After two debates this weekend and a handful of new polls, I think that scenario is highly unlikely. The most recent New Hampshire polls show Santorum flat-lining. He’s now consistently behind not just Romney and Paul, but, in two polls that came out today, also Huntsman. And all the polls show him too close to Gingrich for comfort. Meanwhile, though Santorum had a few solid moments in this weekend’s debates, it’s hard to see them providing much of a boost. The moment most likely to stand out in voters’ minds was his back-and-forth with Ron Paul in Saturday night’s debate, when the two men debated the virtues of Santorum’s post-Senate lobbying career. This is not exactly a strong foundation for a New Hampshire triumph.
The irony is that Romney remains pretty vulnerable. Set aside his shifting ideological profile—particularly his healthcare heresies, which rivals have never really exploited. If you just look at South Carolina, you see that Romney could be knocked off stride pretty easily. Yet another poll out today shows him lagging well behind the combined support for Gingrich and Santroum in the state—30 for Romney versus 42 for the two others. But if, as appears likely, Santorum and Gingrich can't distinguish themselves in New Hampshire, they'll continue to more or less split the same bloc in South Carolina, allowing Romney to win there with the 30 percent he consistently draws.
At this point, the only way Romney stumbles is if he has a much closer call in New Hampshire than the 20-plus-point victory the pros expect. If that somehow shrinks to single-digits, Romney would limp out of New Hampshire, which would crimp his South Carolina numbers and could put him in striking distance of either Gingrich or Santorum, even if neither is able to consolidate the other man’s support. (The SC poll out today puts Newt in second at 23 percent and Santorum in third at 19.)
There’s a faint glimmer of hope for the anti-Romneys on this front: The latest Suffolk University tracking poll shows Romney’s New Hampshire lead down to 15 points (35-20) over Ron Paul, after hitting 23 points on Friday. But given how soon the votes will be cast there and the lack of a real game-changer in the debates—not to mention that this is a single, possibly errant, poll—I wouldn’t exactly jump on the opportunity to bet against Romney. As Alec says, it's starting to feel like it's time for him to audition running mates.
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