All eyes are on New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary now that the voters in Iowa have had their say.
The presidential candidates competing here have spent months gathering endorsements, holding town hall meetings, and meeting one-on-one with Granite Staters to ask for their votes.
Political observers here say that both Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have the strongest ground games in the state, while the other candidates are far behind. Both candidates ran in 2008 and have built on the organizations they had previously.
“Certainly, I think the Romney organization is ready to go,” said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “I think they’re itching to cash in on a strong performance in Iowa and do their best here to basically put the game away in New Hampshire. I suspect they will be working all out to make sure that they get their vote out.”
Scala said Paul has also been “working the state steadily” and will be “a force to contend with.”
Mike Dennehy, a partner at Dennehy & Bouley who helped John McCain to victories in New Hampshire in 2000 and 2008, thinks Paul is running a strong campaign, especially compared to his 2008 effort.
“In 2008, it was more a ragtag operation that was not well-organized,” he said. “He had a lot of support out there and it was very passionate. But this year, he’s actually organized … there’s nothing like it … in many ways, it’s a stronger organization than Mitt Romney’s.”
Could Santorum emerge?
The wild card is who can emerge as the anti-Romney, anti-Paul candidate or candidates, and whether that candidate will be able to quickly build an organization and compete, said Dean Spiliotes, a veteran political scientist and civic scholar at Southern New Hampshire University.
He said that could be former Sen. Rick Santorum following his strong showing in Iowa, or the “third coming of Newt Gingrich,” who has thus far failed to capitalize on the Union Leader endorsement. Right now, he said Jon Huntsman is the only other candidate with any sort of organization in the state.
The only other candidate with the cash on hand to compete with the advertising dollars of Romney and Paul is Rick Perry, who appeared ready to drop out of the race altogether after a poor Iowa showing before abruptly reversing course.
Perry technically should be the anti-Romney candidate, and that’s what many New Hampshire Republicans were hoping for when they urged him to jump into the fray. But that train may have already left the station, according to Dennehy.
“(Perry) definitely had the profile, and I’m sure that all of those folks, very high profile, powerful Republicans, are disappointed,” he said. “But this game of presidential politics is difficult. Clearly, Rick Perry hadn’t thought it all the way through, or did and thought he could handle it. I can’t disagree with his strategy of going straight to South Carolina. He has a better chance there than he does here.”
Of course, the firewall strategy has never been a road to securing a party nomination in the past, according to Stephen Duprey, a Republican committeeman and former state chairman. He said it would be a mistake for Perry or anyone else not to campaign in New Hampshire, thinking they will win South Carolina and reset their campaigns.
“If you don’t do well in Iowa, and you don’t do well in New Hampshire, you’re not going to do well in South Carolina,” he said. “South Carolina has never picked a new candidate; they’ve picked one of the two who won Iowa or New Hampshire."
Primary offers 'opportunity and peril'
Despite the strong ground games and organizations by Romney and Paul, it's possible that their campaigns could still collapse. But that appears unlikely at this point.
Duprey said New Hampshire offers both “opportunity and peril” to candidates. But if Romney and Perry do stumble, who will take their places? Most political observers don’t really know because beyond those two, the campaigns are in various states of organization.
Most think that Huntsman has the best shot in New Hampshire, due to all of the time he has spent in the state. However, the Iowa surge by Santorum, who has also spent a fair amount of time in the Granite State this fall, could carry over here. Gingrich, who started to build an organization in the fall when he started growing support in the polls, could also rise again.
“(Huntsman) has certainly done a lot of events here,” Scala said. “The question will be, how strong is the organizing in ID'ing their vote and turning it out.”
Scala expects Huntsman to do well inside the semi-circle that runs from Keene to Hanover to Concord. He described Huntsman as like “a gentler more moderate Ron Paul on foreign policy … the question will be whether Paul jams them up” or if Huntsman can break 15 percent in the southeastern part of the state running from Salem to Hooksett to Rockingham County, areas considered to be Romney strongholds.
Dennehy said Huntsman has “good supporters,” but he doesn't have much of a volunteer organization and what he does started late. He said Gingrich is in a similar situation, because he only began putting together a real campaign after rising in the polls in the fall. Dennehy said Santorum also has a good organization but doesn't know if he has time to gain momentum.
“He hasn’t spent a good amount of time here, of late – he did spend time here before,” Dennehy said, “But to keep people fired up, you need to be here, and he hasn’t been here much over the last couple of months. The big question will be if his organization is strong enough to capitalize out of Iowa.”
“Santorum has been low in polls here,” he said. “But if he would be able to see the same kind of increase here that he saw in Iowa, it could have a real slingshot effect to his campaign.”
Gingrich has more upside than downside, Duprey said. But if he has a disappointing result in New Hampshire, “it would make it virtually impossible to recover,” he said.
In the end, the outcome, beyond Romney and Paul performing well, is completely unknown, and most observers don’t expect the top two candidates to collapse. But anything is possible.
“Seven days is a long time in New Hampshire,” Scala said. “A lot can happen.”