Last night was, by all accounts, a good night for Mitt Romney. He went into the New Hampshire primary needing two things: to win by a significant margin and to leave no one else with a plausible path to victory.
The results from the Granite State fulfilled both of these Romney criteria, and it’s now extremely likely Mitt Romney will win the Republican presidential nomination this year. But it’s still unclear whether he will emerge from the process with his reputation, and his polling numbers, intact.
Romney’s greatest threat now doesn’t come from any other candidate: there is no one in a position to beat Romney, and he could quickly wrap it all up with wins in South Carolina and Florida. Having won both Iowa (at least technically) and New Hampshire, Mitt is now the odds-on favorite going forward according to every precedent. Ron Paul’s two best states are behind him, and he’s going nowhere fast. Romney’s Iowa co-winner, Rick Santorum, tied for fourth in NH; whatever “bounce” he had from his Iowa performance has subsided, and he has no natural advantage when the campaign moves to the South. The candidate who is already mounting a potentially devastating SuperPAC assault on Romney in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich, has little if any personal momentum coming out of NH. Rick Perry’s predictably abysmal performance in NH further undermines any hopes of a southern comeback.
The biggest boulder in the road ahead for Mitt, the vicious anti-Bain ads being bought in South Carolina by the pro-Gingrich Winning the Future group, may not hurt him immediately, if only because no rival is poised to take advantage of it: At this point it appears the only effect would be to depress turnout. But Romney should be concerned for their impact beyond the Palmetto State—particularly in the general election. There is almost nothing in these ads that could not be directly repeated in a pro-Obama ad.
The big question now is whether conservative opinion-leaders, who have basically resigned themselves to Romney as nominee, begin to denounce Gingrich for his anti-Romney nastygrams in SC. If they fail to do that, it might tempt the struggling survivors of the competition so far—not only Newt, but Paul, Santorum and perhaps even Rick Perry, who desperately needs a southern breakthrough fast—to go collectively nuclear on Mitt. Lord only knows how many SuperPAC benefactors each of them might identify to back an apocalyptic set of attack ads; we are only now beginning to understand how much the new rules of campaign financing enable billionaires like Newt’s friend Sheldon Adelson to casually expend sofa-cushion money to wreak great havoc with ad buys. Jon Huntsman, whose all-or-nothing New Hampshire bid fell far short of victory, has a Super PAC backed by the bottomless wealth of his father. What if the Huntsmans decide to go for broke?
So we can assume Team Romney is burning up the phone lines tonight trying to convert his objective domination of the invisible primary and the first two voting events into a nomination. And their most powerful talking point may simply be: if you let Mitt get torched, who’s left? The previously torched Gingrich? The feckless Perry? The one-hit wonder Santorum? Surely not Ron Paul!
And thus the scenario that Democrats have long feared—the early-primary success of the candidate who fares best in general election trial heats against Obama—is now developing in an unexpected way. Instead of convincing primary voters to cast their ballots for him, he may have to convince conservative opinion-leaders to talk his ostensibly vanquished opponents to leave him alone, or at least refrain from going medieval on him. Otherwise Mitt’s likely victory in the nomination contest could prove to be Pyrrhic.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.