MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Political observers and staff members for presidential campaigns almost unanimously expect former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to win the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. The only real question, in their mind, is the margin of victory he will enjoy -- a number that has quickly become the subject of intense jockeying in hotel lobbies, at candidate events, and among reporters at bars here in the Granite State.
On Wednesday, one of Jon Huntsman's top surrogates, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, raised the stakes for Romney to new heights, arguing that GOP frontrunner "ought to get 60 to 70 percent of the vote" in the primary.
"This is Romney's state," said Ridge in an interview with The Huffington Post. "[H]e has a house here, neighboring governor. It is a home field advantage, but it is more than that. I mean, he has played here for five years, so he is going to win it."
A 60 percent win in New Hampshire, let alone a 70 percent one, is quite likely out of Romney's reach. The most recent Suffolk University poll has him receiving 43 percent of support, 29 percent more than his nearest opponent, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). That poll, however, was taken before the Iowa caucuses, the results of which seem almost certain to change some voters' perceptions of the race. Furthermore, in that same poll, 35 percent of respondents said they were very or somewhat likely to change their mind.
Speaking at the Radisson hotel in downtown Manchester, Ridge managed to knock Romney even while painting him as a powerful political force. He downplayed Romney's win in the Iowa caucuses, noting that only about six percent of all registered Republicans in the state had voted for him.
"It is hardly a mandate," he said. "It is hardly a coronation."
On substantive matters, however, Ridge wouldn't dig in, choosing only to say that Romney has had "epiphanies" on many issues. The real contrasts, he hinted, would be made by Huntsman during the upcoming debates. Perhaps the most prominent politician to endorse Huntsman's campaign -- Ridge also served in the House of Representatives and as Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush -- he set a decidedly lower bar for Huntsman in the week ahead, saying he thought a third-place finish would exceed expectations.
"Four, three, two -- it can't be one," he said. "Do we have an outside shot at second? Well, [the state's motto] is 'Live Free or Die,' so there is a very strong libertarian streak here. How well does Ron Paul play here? It is tough to calculate -- maybe number two."
"I will tell you this," Ridge continued. "My view is that Governor Huntsman's showing will be significant and strong enough that he becomes one of the three or four [candidates left standing]. He becomes part of the national debate from here on out, because he has one heck of a team lined up in South Carolina."