In the lead-up to the New Hampshire primary, here are a few key things to look for:
Romney's margin of victory: It's widely assumed that Romney is going to win New Hampshire tonight. If Romney had come in a distant third in Iowa, he would probably need a New Hampshire win to stay viable as a candidate. Right now, he only needs a New Hampshire win to maintain his momentum. Polls taken over the weekend show Romney with a 15-24-point lead over his nearest rival, Ron Paul. Though Romney has slipped some over the past few days, no candidate seems to be gaining enough to overtake him by Tuesday (though bigger surprises have happened). Newt Gingrich has suggested that Romney will have a "big problem" if he can't crack 40 percent in the primary results tomorrow night. I think the fact that most polls show Romney falling just below 40 percent had something to do with Gingrich's picking of that ceiling. Historically, many candidates (even the "mavericky" McCain in 2008) have failed to get 40 percent in New Hampshire and have gone on to win the nomination. But Gingrich isn't totally wrong: Romney getting over 40 percent would add to his momentum going into South Carolina, where he already has a lead. I think a Romney victory margin of under 10 percent probably slows his momentum a little, and a victory in between 10 and 15 percent probably leaves his momentum about where it is. A loss in New Hampshire would be a blow, however.
Jon Huntsman finds himself in the same position Rick Santorum was in
during early December 2011: As Santorum's future depended upon his
performance in Iowa, Huntsman's future depends upon his performance in
New Hampshire. Unfortunately for Huntsman, he finds himself a distant
third or fourth in New Hampshire a day before voters go to the polls. Some polling suggests that Huntsman has climbed over the weekend.
If that trend continues, he may come close to or beat Ron Paul. A
second-place performance by Huntsman keeps him in the game, as does a
close third-place finish. If he falls behind Gingrich or Santorum,
however, Huntsman has a hard slog to Super Tuesday, let alone the
Santorum's performance: An outspoken social conservative, Rick Santorum is the kind of candidate who shouldn't do well in New Hampshire. Moreover, as of a little over a week ago, he was mired in the low single digits in the Granite State, though he's now increased to the double-digits and is in a close contest with Gingrich for fourth place. No one's expecting much from Santorum in New Hampshire: South Carolina is a much more important battleground for him. But a relatively strong performance in New Hampshire can set him up for that upcoming Southern primary. The results of the Iowa caucuses caused Romney and Santorum to skyrocket in South Carolina to first and second place, respectively. Since the middle of December, Gingrich's support has dropped there from the mid-to-high 30s to the high teens. But polling shows that this is still a close race in South Carolina between Gingrich and Santorum. If Santorum outperforms Gingrich decisively in New Hampshire, the former Pennsylvania senator could convince fence-sitting Romney skeptics that he is the most viable alternative to Romney, thereby causing Gingrich's support to drop further. If Santorum somehow manages to outperform Huntsman, his status would be further elevated.
New Hampshire has given the nation more than a few political surprises, so a lot of things could happen. With their increasingly vicious and Ted Kennedy-like attacks upon Romney, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich seem to have bet on trying to weaken Romney enough to slow his momentum and thus keep the race open in the weeks to come. New Hampshire could be a testing ground to see how successful they are in these attacks -- and how much Rick Santorum will be the beneficiary of a (potentially) weakened Romney.