01/07/2012 07:05 pm ET

New Hampshire Primary Could Determine Mitt Romney's Standing In Republican Presidential Primary

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Anything can happen in New Hampshire at the last minute, and often does. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is surging again at the last minute, just as he did in Iowa.

But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney can take a commanding lead, if not wrap up the nomination, with a victory here -- he has a widening lead of 20 -- and another on Jan. 21 in South Carolina, where he now, remarkably, is also leading the polls.

If he wins both, Romney will then have the month of February -- a dead zone in which there are relatively few primaries or other events -- to consolidate his fundraising and organizational lead without having to face what he dislikes most: uncontrolled and uncontrollable political situations in the field.

Romney's top lieutenants here, all-too aware of the fickle decision-making habits of New Hampshire voters, are cautiously optimistic. In 1980, Ronald Reagan beat George H.W. Bush by 27 points; in 2000, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) came from behind to beat George W. Bush by 18 points. "I'm not sure we will get to either of those margins," said one top Romney insider, "but I think it will be solid, solid enough."

That could be the defining slogan of the Romney campaign, if he delivers here.

The only other urgent question in New Hampshire is: Who will finish first in the race to be the premier "conservative" alternative to Romney?

With Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) out of the race and Texas Gov. Rick Perry not playing here (and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman in his own orbit), this second-tier contest is between a rising Santorum and a battered, faltering, but still dangerous Newt Gingrich.

Santorum on Saturday drew large crowds, which overwhelmed some of the event sites. He received warm receptions, but not all of those in attendance were his supporters or even residents of New Hampshire. As at other stops, Santorum has drawn college kids and Democrats eager to ambush him on social issues, taking advantage of his deliberately informal campaign style.

Here in "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire, he has emphasized the economic and anti-big government portions of his campaign, framing his "family, faith and freedom" message around his view that traditional, biblical values are the foundation of a healthy, secular American democracy the founders envisioned.

There is some evidence of another "Santorum Surge" -- after rocketing to the top tier in Iowa -- but it is somewhat less pronounced and he has much farther to climb here if he is going to catch Romney.

Beating Gingrich might be easily doable. The former speaker has the backing of New Hampshire's only statewide newspaper, the Union Leader, whose conservative editors are featuring Gingrich in the news pages and bashing all of his GOP foes on the editorial pages.

But there is little evidence of any movement toward Gingrich. One of his top backers, Union Leader president and publisher Joe McQuaid, told The Huffington Post that he did not regret having endorsed the former speaker. "We always like to make trouble, and we thought that Newt would be good at that," he said.

If Santorum finishes well ahead of Gingrich, his aides will claim -- and already are claiming -- that he would be good enough to carry them on a strong tide to South Carolina, where they could make their case as the main alternative to Romney.

Still, it remains possible that Santorum (and Gingrich) will finish behind 76-year-old libertarian candidate Ron Paul, who continues to draw large and enthusiastic crowds, all of which are his own supporters (even though quite a number of them are volunteers from more than a dozen states, from Florida to Texas and every place in between).

Having raised some $15 million in the last quarter, Paul is more than an annoyance; he is arguably the best-financed protest candidate in modern history. Few, if any, Republican experts or independent observers give Paul a chance of winning the nomination, but the deep commitment of his followers and his hefty bank account -- most of it raised on the Internet -- means that he can stay in the race all the way to the end of the nominating season if he so chooses.

In the meantime, Paul and his allies are using some of his vast horde not to attack Romney, but to play spoiler in the "conservative" second-tier contest. In Iowa, Paul's allies attacked Gingrich and helped bring him down from a lead position to an also-ran in two weeks. Here in New Hampshire, Paul's forces are attacking Santorum.

Although he is operating in his own libertarian orbit, Paul's aim is to amass as many GOP convention delegates as possible, with the hope of staging as many platform and other fights as he can -- and always with the threat that he will bolt the party and run as an independent third-party candidate if he is thwarted.

Because the GOP's nominating rules this year stress "proportional representation" and not winner-take-all primaries, at least earlier in the calendar, Romney will have to be patient to outlast the others and amass a majority of delegates.

The rules also favor Romney, however; even if Santorum were to catch fire as a genuine national alternative, he would still have to split delegates with others -- Paul, to be sure, and Romney, who is nothing if not well organized and committed to a national campaign.

All of which makes South Carolina crucial -- perhaps even more so than Iowa or New Hampshire. If Romney can win there, he can begin to apply institutional pressure on Santorum, Gingrich and whomever else may want to remain in the race, with the obvious exception of Paul. Asked by The Huffington Post whether he would remain in the GOP race to the end, Paul on Friday had an equivocal answer.

"I'll decide that later," he said.