New Hampshire shrugged. From the beach towns in the east to the mountain hamlets in the North Country, in the urban centers of midstate and through the creeping suburbs of the south, the state that regards itself as the great, if often cranky, arbitrator of presidential politics told America that its neighbor Mitt Romney was good enough to be the GOP nominee, but maybe not sparkly enough to ignite a Republican romance.
The first primary sent Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, onto the next round as the undisputed front-runner in the Republican sweepstakes. It gave him momentum, if not passion, as the campaign swings south, first to South Carolina next Saturday and then to Florida at month’s end. He’s the man to beat, and there are strong indications that there is no one in this field who can beat him.
Still, New Hampshire 2012 will be remembered for two important questions, one political and one philosophical, that emerged from a week of intense face-to-face campaigning that verged on riveting hand-to-hand combat.
Front-runner still weak
The first is the weakness of the front-runner, who for the second week in a row drew about the same portion of the vote as he did four years earlier against a tougher, more diverse and overall more interesting field of rivals.
The second is the profound introspection these Republicans set in motion about the character of capitalism, unusual in any party but without precedent in the Republican Party perhaps since 1912. For nearly a week, Romney’s record as a crusading consultant rushing in to salvage profits amid corporate wreckage was at the center of the Republican debate. This was not the way the former Bain Capital chief, who has relentlessly portrayed himself as a business savior rather than a job wrecker, had remotely intended. From all corners of a party that once was considered the curator of capitalism came an assault on Romney and important questions about the human costs of corporate restructuring and the moral consequences of bottom-line success and CEO compensation.
This, perhaps more than the results of New Hampshire, has the capacity to shift the American conversation, which remains preoccupied with the question of job creation and economic growth. The hard-boiled burghers of the north, the shopkeepers of the lake country and the new-age entrepreneurs of the shiny, high-tech south unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of a raucous debate over the rectitude of corporate downsizing and whether outside consultants, armed with spreadsheets and MBAs, should be celebrated for what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich derided as “looting a company.”
That is the language one expects in the precincts of an Occupy tent community, not in a Republican primary in a state that voted twice for both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. What broke out in New Hampshire was class warfare of a distinct sort, waged by men of mostly modest upbringings against a onetime corporate warrior with impeccable establishment credentials.
In a way, the attack against Romney — an assault, it must be noted, that he parried with some elan — was itself an eloquent statement about American social mobility, the predominant theme of this campaign. Romney’s father, who picked potatoes and worked construction before climbing to the chairmanship of American Motors Corp., was one of the striving survivors of the Great Depression. He was the son of a carpenter living a subsistence and then a rootless, debt-ridden childhood in Texas, California, Idaho and Utah. He did not hold a college degree.
Now the son, who Tuesday night described the new GOP critique of capitalism as “such a mistake for our party and for our nation,” is the first Republican in a generation to win contested races in New Hampshire and Iowa, though the latter came by only eight votes. No matter. This permits Romney to wheel into South Carolina as a formidable force, a significant factor in a party thirsty to end the presidency of Barack Obama. Indeed, a new Gallup Poll indicated Romney was the only candidate a majority of conservative and moderate/liberal Republicans regarded as an “acceptable” nominee.
Even so, there could be danger signals in what Romney called his “Granite State moment” Tuesday night. He polled substantially less than Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, another New Hampshire neighbor, who in 1972 was regarded as the unassailable front-runner, but whose 46 percent showing was regarded as unimpressive, even fatal. Muskie polled only 9 percentage points ahead of Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota, but Romney four decades later has no challenger remotely as skilled as those in the 1972 class.
The contender who exceeded expectations was former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, whose third-place showing provided him the oxygen to continue. A former U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Huntsman staked all on New Hampshire, much as former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania staked all on Iowa. Appealing in large measure to independents, Huntsman, who made some 170 appearances in the state, has the grit but probably not the support to be a factor going forward. In contrast, Santorum, who embraces many of the social-conservative issues that a substantial part of the GOP voting base feels haven’t won a sufficient airing, can hope for a more congenial environment in South Carolina.
Paul as independent?
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, whose strong second-place finish once again showed he has a solid core of supporters — Tuesday night they chanted “President Paul” as he addressed them — underlined that he could force the Republican contest to continue longer than Republican strategists might hope. Whether he mounts an independent candidacy, endangering the GOP’s hopes in November, is Campaign 2012’s biggest unknown.
But Tuesday was Romney’s night, not the best night a Republican front-runner has enjoyed but much better than the one Sen. Bob Dole, skunked by conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, experienced in 1996.
For the second straight week, Romney at best can say he, and what he described as “our cause,” won. At worst, he can claim he did not lose. If that continues, he could win the nomination by not losing, which against a weak president could be just enough to transform American politics.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His email address is email@example.com.