Despite a steady drop in the polls in recent days and a slip up on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney is still the candidate to beat in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary. With the former Massachusetts governor still almost 10 points ahead of his nearest rival, the real race now is for second place, even though Texas Rep. Ron Paul appears to have the edge over former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
The keys to Tuesday's contest will be how much of a margin Romney wins by and whether or not Huntsman can jump Paul for a "surprise" second place finish. As Gingrich noted at a campaign stop in Manchester on Monday, a remarkable number of voters still say they are undecided or could change their mind before they vote.
"The process we're going through is really, really important," Gingrich said.
Candidates continued their mad dash around The Granite State before voters take to the polls, but the lack of enthusiasm for any one politician is evident.
Romney's time as governor of neighboring Massachusetts combined with his previous run for the White House has led to his vast lead among voters. But some of the shine has begun to rub off Romney after a pair of tough debates combined with new attack ads have wounded the frontrunner. Analysts say Romney needs to win by a double-digit margin to keep momentum in his presidential bid.
At a Nashua Chamber of Commerce event on Monday, Romney was discussing health insurance reforms and proposed that individual workers be allowed more choice in who their health insurer is, something typically dictated by the employer. [See pictures of Republican candidates campaigning in in New Hampshire.]
"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn't give me the good service I need, I want to ... go get someone else to provide that service to me," he said, according to news reports.
Democrats and Republican opponents alike seized on the phrase, "I like being able to fire people" to portray Romney as a job cutter. Lately, his time as a business turnaround specialist has been scrutinized, giving voters a sense of how his firm Bain Capital operated. Often, struggling companies were purchased by Bain, which cut costs by shedding employees among other things. The companies, presumably now made profitable thanks to the cuts in overheard, were then sold by Bain for a profit.
Romney detractors hope that with so many Americans unemployed, the image of a seemingly callous wealthy businessman with a reputation for laying off people will turn off voters. Romney's comments on Monday—and others, like when he claimed "corporations are people"—have merely provided a soundtrack to the existing storyline. A disappointing finish for Romney on Tuesday will ensure that this narrative continues throughout the 2012 campaign season.
In the second-place race, Huntsman is hoping for his own Santorum moment with grassroots efforts paying off over media buys. He'll likely need to top Paul for second place in order to keep his candidacy viable. There may be some momentum coming his way, following strong weekend debate performances. His defense of serving as Obama's U.S. ambassador to China struck many as pitch perfect in the face of a divisive Washington climate.
"[Romney] criticized me, while he was out raising money, for serving my country in China, yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy," he said. "They're not asking what political affiliation the president is."
Santorum, who came within eight votes of toppling Romney in Iowa, has struggled to convert that finish into votes in New Hampshire. Known for his unyielding positions on abortion and gay marriage, Santorum faced criticism from some New Hampshire students when he compared same-sex marriage—which is legal in New Hampshire—to polygamy. By Monday, he had refocused his message on his economic proposals, but it's unlikely he'll finish above fourth place.
Newt Gingrich is jostling with Santorum near the back of the pack. The former House speaker has tried to win votes by displaying his knowledge of history and his comparing his conservative bona fides to Republican hero Ronald Reagan. But he's been unable to regain the traction his candidacy had just a few weeks ago before opponents attacked him as a lobbyist and Washington insider.
And as it was in Iowa, the candidate with the most boisterous and passionate following is Paul, but his support appears to have a ceiling at about 20 percent of the vote. His hope is surely that as many of New Hampshire's independent voters come out to vote as possible, as he leads all other candidates with that group. The state's semi-open primary allows for independents to vote Republican ballots, but not for registered Democrats to weigh in on the GOP side. Paul's libertarian stance brought new voters into the fold in Iowa and he'll need to achieve the same to make a run at Romney in New Hampshire.
Overall, the race in New Hampshire is still fluid. As has been the narrative throughout the GOP race, if voters were to break in favor of one of Romney's rivals, his level of support is low enough that he's vulnerable. But there's no evidence that such a break is coming—more likely, voters will continue to scatter their support among his rivals.
It's very likely that the race will still be a contest after New Hampshire, even if Romney accomplishes a back-to-back win. South Carolina, the next state to weigh in, offers social conservatives another chance to stall the slow march of Romney toward the nomination.
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