In the spirit of the rampant speculation that is about to begin, I have one further thought on the New Hampshire result, this time on the Republican side. Last night, John McCain propelled himself into first place in the Republican race. He is now the likely victor. The Republican party will now rally round him, anticipating the fight with Hillary we all expected. Right?
Not so fast. My hunch is that, despite what you will read, Mitt Romney may well be the real winner from this process. McCain is popular in New Hampshire. The fact that his campaign didn’t implode six months ago remains impressive. And the result is undoubtedly a major lifeline for his campaign. But he now faces some serious challenges.
The next two states are Michigan (where Romney’s dad was the governor) and South Carolina (where McCain-hating evangelicals dominate.) McCain’s campaign is broke. He has no ground operation in any of the forthcoming states. Romney, on the other hand, has finished second twice, which is no bad performance. He is flush with cash. And most importantly, he is the preferred candidate of the Republican establishment. In every election for the last two decades, the Republican party has ultimately picked their establishment’s choice, beating back a potential insurgent. They picked George Bush the elder in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996, beating back the challenge of Pat Buchanan and others. (Don’t forget: Buchanan actually won New Hampshire in 1996.) Then, in 2000, they picked George W Bush, despite his having been well beaten by—guess who?—John McCain in the primary in—guess where?—New Hampshire. This time, the establishment likes Romney. He isn’t a Christian extremist, like the worst of Huckabee’s platform. He shows little independence of mind, making him safer than McCain. He has a picture postcard family life, in contrast to the oddities of Rudy Giuliani’s colourful past. And Romney also has the ability to keep paying for, and organising, an efficient operation on the ground in new states. In short, Romney is not to be written off. In a few months, we might reflect that Hillary’s surprise comeback wasn’t even the most interesting resurgence coming out New Hampshire after all. Instead, when the dust has settled, it might be Mitt.