N.H.'s Main Event: The Fight for 2nd Place

N.H.'s Main Event: The Fight for 2nd Place

By Scott Conroy - January 6, 2012

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- As Mitt Romney appears likely to cruise to victory in New Hampshire, it has become increasingly clear that the most consequential battle in Tuesday's primary will be the struggle for second place.

Unless something truly unforeseen occurs over the next five days, Romney's big lead in the polls and considerable institutional advantages here will be more than enough to propel him to a win.

With a potential blowout brewing, much of the broader campaign narrative has already begun to shift to South Carolina, where the race remains more uncertain.

But not so fast.

How Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman fill in the second- to fifth-place slots in New Hampshire will largely determine who has momentum going into the first-in-the-South primary that has been won by every eventual Republican nominee since Ronald Reagan.

“It feels out there that, even amongst the candidates themselves, they’re just trying to come out of here as the alternative to Romney,” said New Hampshire Republican strategist Rich Killion.

According to the polls, Ron Paul appears best-positioned to secure a second-place finish, but a New Hampshire silver medal is far from a foregone conclusion for the Texas congressman.

The Paul campaign fought hard to win the Iowa caucuses, where they believed victory was within reach, but the libertarian-leaning candidate’s third-place showing there might deflate the upward trajectory he appeared to be on just last week.

Unlike the other candidates, who are campaigning almost around the clock, Paul returned to Texas for a two-day respite from the trail after Iowa, and his next scheduled event in New Hampshire is not until Friday afternoon, when he will hold a rally in Nashua.

Paul’s New Hampshire communications director, Kate Schackai, did not deny that a second-place showing is what they are aiming for here.

“I think it would provide us with momentum,” she said. “I think we’ll be very pleased with that.”

But South Carolina is not an especially inviting state for Paul, whose goal appears to be to accumulate as many delegates as possible heading into the Republican convention.

For Santorum, however, a stronger than expected showing in the Granite State could go a long way toward setting up a scenario by which he becomes a front-runner in South Carolina.

“If we can finish third, that's a damn good place to be, and I think we have a chance of finishing second,” Santorum told the New Hampshire Union Leader.

After working the state quietly for months, Santorum is now drawing large crowds to his events here and has ticked upward in the polls, despite his inherent challenge making inroads among a Republican electorate that is more secular and socially moderate than it is in many other parts of the country.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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