MANCHESTER, N.H. | Tuesday’s is the seventh New Hampshire primary I’ve covered, so I’ve learned the shortcuts through the Lakes Region, the best diners and the ways that voters here can confound pundits on Election Day.
Here is what I am watching for Tuesday night:
What is the margin of victory?
Assuming everything goes as imagined, Mitt Romney – who served as governor of neighboring Massachusetts, has been on the ballot here before and even owns a vacation home in the state – wins, the question becomes: by how much? Polls during the final week show him well ahead, but with his margin eroding. If he doesn’t maintain a double-digit lead in the end, expectations could render him a weakened frontrunner.
Can Jon Huntsman survive?
As Romney’s lead has eroded, Huntsman, another Mormon with roots in Utah has apparently earned a second look. (“We are being screwed as Americans,” he says in ads airing here in what seems like a continuous loop.) If he nudges Ron Paul aside to edge into second place, a lot of other voters could start giving him a second look as well. But that’s a big “if.”
Does Ron Paul have a path forward?
His solid 20-percent base of support isn’t going anywhere, and no candidate has a more passionate following than the Texas congressman. But his path forward is interesting. His campaign is planning for him to compete in primaries like South Carolina, but to emphasize caucus states. Nevada, anyone?
Was Rick Santorum’s Iowa breakthrough an anomaly?
New Hampshire voters certainly perked up when Santorum blew back into the state with a second-place Iowa finish and wind at his back. But New Hampshire is not a friendly place for social conservatives, and Santorum’s message — accusing the president of “snobbery” for favoring college education and flatly opposing gay marriage and even contraception — guarantee he had a pretty low ceiling here.
How low will Newt go?
Newt Gingrich is still unhappy about how thoroughly he was kicked to the curb by negative advertising during the Iowa Caucuses. This shows in his Web videos and the ads he can afford to pay for. Romney is his main target. But in both weekend debates, it became clear that Gingrich is conflicted. On the same day he cast himself as a Reagan conservative who knew how to work with Democrats and independents, he also castigated Romney for being a “Massachusetts moderate” lacking conservative principles. Does he really want to do Democrats’ dirty work for them?
Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.