Primary Night in New Hampshire and it’s all Mitt Romney (39 percent), Ron Paul (23 percent) and Jon Huntsman (17 percent). The outcome held few surprises for political junkies across the country. The tracking polls, the lofty prognostications, the ever-present map and walking lists all signaled a Romney victory. The only thing left to fret over by 8:45pm (polls closed at 8pm) was the final percentages for each candidate. Textbook.
However, a funny thing happened on the road from Iowa to New Hampshire where even the most disciplined and experienced campaign found out it could step in it and potentially bring its momentum to a screeching halt.
But, despite the typical bumps and bruises that candidates often endure in New Hampshire or even the self-inflicted wounds from having to explain comments that were “taken out of context,” it was clear such concerns were secondary for Romney and his team as each day they focused on sealing the fate of his rivals. For Romney this fight was about creating distance (a double digit spread between him and his nearest competitor), proving the primary is all about electability (56 percent of voters in exit polls said Romney was best suited to defeat President Obama in the fall) and surviving long enough and doing well enough to seal the deal in South Carolina.
In reality, New Hampshire had long become a “pass-through” for many of the candidates. Romney’s organization and money had pretty much secured his pole position to have, as Ron Paul put it, “a clear cut victory.” So the only thing left, really, would be the final pecking order. In most contests, first place is a big deal. But here, the second through fourth place positions would hold a great deal more meaning because from those perches money would continue to come in and the fight could go on. Obviously, for Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich the battle for fourth place would be a big deal too.
Moreover, if conservatives truly wanted to stop Romney’s momentum, then they would need a beachhead — a place that would allow them to put into sharp relief the differences drawn up until now. But that place would not be New Hampshire.
Instead, New Hampshire offered Mitt Romney an electoral safe haven. With over 40 percent of New Hampshire voters identifying themselves as independent and barely 31 percent identifying as Republican, the confrontation with conservatives would have to wait. Remember, with Romney not competing in Iowa until the numbers showed something other than a potential blowout, Gingrich still stinging from an $8 million dollar Super PAC beat-down, and all other rivals struggling to keep up, Romney was able build support from a broad spectrum of voters that would lead to his historic victory on Tuesday night.
Enter South Carolina.
Within an hour of the inevitable, the inevitable happened: the gloves started coming off and Rick Perry — who had contemplated dropping out of the race after Iowa — threw the first punch at Romney’s political jaw from his perch in South Carolina (he didn’t even bother to campaign in New Hampshire). In what will surely become a hit on the Democrat’s GOP highlight reel, Perry dismissed Romney’s win while noting he engaged in “vulture capitalism” while working at Bain Capitol. Ouch.
So as South Carolina heats up, who can stop Romney? Romney. While there is no longer an identifiable “anti-Romney” conservative heading into South Carolina, it still remains Romney’s Achilles heel to prove his ability to marry two things: (1) that he is not just the most electable candidate to challenge the president, but (2) that more than likeability, he is and will be a consistent conservative on those core issues (and it’s not just social issues) that matter most to them. Then and only then will Mitt Romney be not only the frontrunner but the nominee with a conservative base coalesced behind him going into the Fall campaign against Barak Obama.
Oh, and did I mention Ron Paul is on his way to South Carolina, too?
Michael Steele served as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a political commentator. He will be providing commentary on all things politics for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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