01/10/2012 05:50 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2012

New Hampshire Primary: Tune In For Furious Spin And Expectations Setting As New Storyline Is Written

What should you watch for in New Hampshire tonight? Beats me! Packs of drunk voters and snow drifts probably top my list. The real action will come after the votes have been tallied, as the media writes the new campaign storyline and the various candidates' spin doctors attempt to uphold or combat it.

The story on Romney, at the moment, is this. New Hampshire is his "stronghold." It's long been suspected that he will do well. He did well in Iowa, by winning it. But he only won it by eight votes, and with only 24.6 percent of the vote. The latter number is key. If you're a critic of Romney -- or just generically suspicious of his ability to carry a conservative coalition in the general election -- you call Mitt "Mr. 25 Percent" and say things like, "He's having a hard time closing the deal with Republican voters."

In New Hampshire, however, he's long been a favorite. And while many are convinced that Romney is stumbling toward the finish line -- presumably under the weight of the timid slap-fight that his competitors unleashed on him over the weekend and his propensity for saying things like "I like being able to fire people" -- he's still expected to do quite well. But while "quite well" might win you the lion's share of New Hampshire's delegates, it may not allow you to claim "the mantle of inevitability." As Ana Marie Cox points out, "Romney has to get more than 30% in order for the media to continue to cover him as though his nomination is inevitable":

Any less than that, we will cover him only as if his nomination is probably inevitable. The second-placed finisher also has an important role to play – unless it is Paul, in which case second place won't count.

That fairly neatly dovetails with my own thinking. In New Hampshire, a Romney "stronghold," Romney taking only 30 percent keeps the "Mr. 25 Percent/Can't Close The Deal" meme alive. But that's a tall order, because it would mean Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich would have to collectively account for 70 percent of the vote. That means more than one member of the Not-Romney field will have to outperform expectations tonight, and it will require Romney's results to be seen in the dimmest possible way. (Huntsman surrogate Tom Ridge, in setting up expectations for tonight, went further than anyone by suggesting that Romney "ought to get 60 to 70 percent of the vote" in New Hampshire, a feat that's not been pulled off by a candidate running with opposition in New Hampshire since Richard Nixon.)

Of course, someone is going to finish second, perhaps even a strong second. I'll agree with Ana Marie, however, that only a Rick Santorum second place finish will have much meaning. Prior to Iowa, Santorum actually had a pretty good way of framing the race:

Ron Paul has his own primary, the libertarian primary. And (Newt) Gingrich and (Mitt) Romney are sort of the establishment primary. And I think there are three who are vying for the conservative mantle to go up against the Gingrich-Romney duo. And I think that I’m going to be the one coming out Iowa with that mantle.

I'm not sure if I'd have lumped Romney and Gingrich together in this fashion, but conceptually, Santorum is spot-on: among GOP primary voters, you essentially have a contest between Ron Paul's avid supporters, Mitt Romney's well-funded bid, and the collective will of the "Not Romney" coalition. Santorum definitely claimed the Not-Romney mantle in Iowa. His problem is that only Michele Bachmann got the memo.

Had Perry and Gingrich quit the race, Santorum might have a cleaner shot at Romney today -- at the very least, he wouldn't have other competitors in the space he wants to occupy. But Gingrich has evidently decided to have his revenge on Romney's super PAC, and Perry -- well, Lord only knows why he's really staying in the race. I'll confess to halfway wishing that some British tabloid journalists had had the foresight to drop a tap on Perry's phone the night after the Iowa caucuses, so we could know who he was talking to in the hours between saying he'd "reassess" his campaign and the strange he drew after that reassessment, which was that his candidacy was awesome.

At any rate, remember, the media loves a horserace and they'll definitely over-invest in any remote sign that Romney may be underperforming in New Hampshire. But unless someone (really, unless Santorum) emerges as the strong non-Paul opponent, quickly chases his rivals from the race and goes on to perform consistently in the next few races, the race will be over tonight.

Remember, between now and Super Tuesday, South Carolina and Florida might be secondary to contests in Colorado, Nevada, and Michigan -- states that everyone is sleeping on, in which Romney should be expected to prevail. Those three states form the real drumbeat of inevitability for Romney. If the rest of field spends the next month swapping second and third place with each other -- garnering results that offer enough false hope that they remain in the race together, splitting the anti-Romey vote four or five different ways -- Romney will happily take all of the "Mr. 25 Percent" criticism you can hurl at him.

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