When the votes were finally counted across New Hampshire Tuesday night, Mitt Romney posted a solid 16-point win that included strong support among voters who described themselves as very conservative and supportive of the Tea Party. Romney’s lead grew over the course of the evening as Romney-friendly precincts stretched his margin over second-place finisher Ron Paul from the low double-digits with a third of the vote counted to the wider final margin.
Romney was expected to do well here. He has been campaigning in the region on-and-off for two decades, he owns a house in New Hampshire, and he has devoted significant time and resources in the current campaign to winning the state. Still, the win here gives Romney a boost heading into the final two primaries of the month – South Carolina on January 21 and Florida ten days later. It’s in the latter contest that Romney has a built-in advantage that might well make him the de facto nominee by February 1.
The first of those contests will be tough. Romney has been leading polls in South Carolina but the state is more hospitable to candidates whose conservatism is deeper and several of his rivals have built strong organizations in the state. Rick Santorum, with $3 million in newly raised cash to spend and a surprisingly strong grassroots organization, figures to give Romney the greatest challenge, in large measure due to their virtual tie in Iowa. Santorum has been to the state some 30 times and has county chairs in nearly all of South Carolina’s 46 counties. He has been building ties with the upstate Tea Party coalition – a powerful group of conservatives whose membership supported Mike Huckabee in big numbers in 2008.
Newt Gingrich has said for months that South Carolina would be his most important state. It turns out that Iowa probably deserves that distinction for reasons that have the former House speaker spitting mad. His super PAC has bought $3.4 million in ad time in South Carolina, space that was to have been filled with anti-Romney ads focused on Romney’s time at Bain Capital. With the swift and ferocious backlash that Gingrich has experienced after his leftist critique of Romney, it’s unclear exactly what kind of ads the pro-Gingrich PAC will end up running.
Rick Perry, who skipped New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina, has a powerhouse South Carolina organization, led by former state GOP chairman and Newt Gingrich advisor Katon Dawson. And Perry has the support of some three-dozen state legislators. But the Texas governor is currently polling at about 5 percent there – not exactly the kind of numbers that would suggest an imminent comeback. What’s more, Perry is broke, having spent (and spent and spent) in Iowa for the 10 percent of the vote he won there.
Can Romney hold his lead – an average of nearly 11 points, according to RealClearPolitics – in South Carolina for ten days? It’ll likely be a brutal week of attacks and counterattacks as he tries. But it might not matter for one reason: Florida.
Romney is by far the best organized candidate in Florida. His super PAC is pummeling Newt Gingrich in the mail and in television ads on the conservative panhandle. And his super PAC, Restore Our Future, has plans to buy more.His campaign is already running ads in Florida (he's on his second message, according to one Florida GOP consultant), including a new ad targeting Spanish-speaking Floridians.
But the story of the Florida primary may be absentee ballots. As of the beginning of this week, 413,000 Floridians had requested absentee ballots for the January 31 primary – some 46,000 of which have been returned. Romney’s team has quietly kicked off an elaborate plan to encourage supporters to vote absentee and to track the requested ballots in order to ensure that they become Romney votes. The Romney operation is comparing lists of those who cast absentee ballots in recent elections to those who have requested ballots this year and urging known Romney supporters to vote before the polls open on the final day of this month. It’s paying off. Romney advisers believe that it’s possible that the campaign will have met half of its vote total goal in Florida before polls open on January 31. In addition to the obvious advantage of having had those ballots cast, that early work frees up the rest of the organization to concentrate on getting a much smaller universe of likely Romney voters to the polls on primary Tuesday.
If the results here Tuesday made it more likely that Republicans will nominate Mitt Romney in August, the results 1,300 miles to the south in three weeks might make it a virtual certainty.