01/08/2012 01:12 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2012

New Hampshire Debate: Mitt Romney May Face Trouble With Anti-Establishment Voters

CONCORD, N.H. -- New Hampshire loves to kick over the bucket: to surprise, to do what Iowa doesn't, to reject the dictates of the powers that be in the interest of "Live Free or Die." It is also a state in which a third of the voters are registered "undeclared" -- belonging to neither party -- and many of them will take part in a Republican primary on Tuesday alongside deep-dyed conservative voters who are not fans of Massachusetts.

For all those reasons and others, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his campaign are on edge today, attacking the press for bias and nervously surveying the landscape, while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's crowd jubilantly celebrates his NBC debate performance and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's admirers tout his stand-off with Romney over super PAC ads in the same event.

No one here is predicting that Romney -- whose lead, after slipping a bit, remains in the mid-30s -- will lose. But even his own New Hampshire advisors have been through this movie before. Many of them worked for George W. Bush in 2000, when Sen. John McCain rose up to drub Bush with a late surge in the state's GOP primary.

New Hampshire has tended to surprise, elevating Jack Kennedy in 1960 and George McGovern in 1972; giving Gene McCarthy in 1968 a platform to embarrass Lyndon Johnson into retirement; reviving Ronald Reagan's campaign and career in 1980; and giving Hillary Clinton a surprise victory over Barack Obama in 2008.

Romney, in some ways, looks a lot like some of the frontrunners who crashed and burned at the last minute: laden with endorsements, sporting tons of yard signs and benefiting from what appears to be a thorough and impregnable organization -- but also giving off the whiff of establishment machinery and purpose, and failing to inspire much passion on the part of his ostensible supporters.

In 1984, that was Democrat Walter Mondale, who lost to Gary Hart. During the final weekend before the primary, it was as though the granite-filled earth was moving in New Hampshire: you could feel the shift happening minute by minute from Saturday to Tuesday. In 1980, George H.W. Bush was in that position; in 2000, his son.

New Hampshire voters are biased against the establishment. That is their number one criterion. Whatever others tell them is about to happen, they do their best to prevent.

They will deliberately look for someone who can send the most thoroughly shocking message.

But the voters here are not cranks. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) in 2008 did less well in the end than his numbers had shown in the polls. The same could happen this time. former Sen. Rick Santorum's pre-Vatican II social conservatism didn't sell here. Indeed, he decamped for South Carolina today after telling The Huffington Post last night that he would not do particularly well here -- an expected result he preferred to chalk up to a lack of money and advertising time.

Having fallen twice, Gingrich scored points in the debate Sunday, but it is almost certainly too late to seriously revive his chances here.

Rick Perry was, well, Rick Perry. The Texas governor now has a wry and rueful sense of humor about himself that could land him a gig on SNL, but not the GOP nomination.

That leaves the man who could become the Rick Santorum of New Hampshire -- the late surprise. Huntsman finally connected in a debate, mordantly dismissing Mitt Romney's attack on him for having served as ambassador to China in the Obama administration.

It's harshly partisan "attitudes like that" that have divided the country and produced cynical gridlock in Washington, Huntsman said.

The line drew applause, which lasted longer than Mitt Romney wanted it to.