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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel


    Mitt Romney greets the crowd after making remarks at Central High School in Manchester with Sen. John McCain Wednesday, January 4, 2012.
  • Stagehand Richie Beanan of Milwaukee, Wisconsin irons the American Flag while preparing the Iowa caucus rally site for Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Tuesday, January 3, 2012 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Christopher Gannon/GannonVisuals.com/MCT)
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel


    Presidential candidate Rick Santorum talks with Telegraph reporters and editors during his editorial board interview at the television studio at Nashua High School South Monday, November 28, 2011.
  • Staff photo by Bruce Preston

    Republican Presidential Candidate Ron Paul speaks with supporters on Saturday afternoon the Nesmith Library in Windham. Paul made a campaign appearance in front of a crowd of more than 75 people at the library.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel


    Facebook Don Himsel at The Telegraph


    Mitt Romney at New England Small Tube in Litchfield Monday, August 15, 2011.
  • Graphic courtesy of McClatchy Newspapers.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

It’s Romney and Santorum, with Paul on their heels

Four years after bitter disappointment, Mitt Romney felt just enough of the love he needed in Iowa and kept alive his dream of becoming the first Republican elected president to win the first caucus and our first-in-the-nation primary next Tuesday.

Romney beat former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum by 14 votes, 30,015 to 30,001.

Some confusion over whether all of the precincts had reported results in Clinton County on the far eastern part of the state kept the contest live until almost 3 a.m., according to CNN reports. Two officials from the county said all of the precincts had reported results by 8 p.m., according to an early morning phone call to CNN.

The consistently strong showing for Texas Congressman Ron Paul and surprising finish for Santorum in Iowa could complicate things in New Hampshire.

But some signs begin to point to the former Massachusetts governor shifting into cruise control if he’s able to hold onto his overwhelming frontrunner status and close the deal in his summer home state.

“A win of any size for Romney in Iowa makes him a giant snowball rolling downhill,” said Mike Dennehy, chief strategist for John McCain, the Arizona senator and two-time winner here who dashed Romney’s hopes of grabbing the nomination in 2008. “I see nobody knocking him off here with that kind of momentum.”

Exit polling revealed nearly half of those who made beating President Barack Obama their No. 1 priority chose Romney as their candidate.

He also won big among caucus-goers making at least $100,000 a year and who gave much weight to the candidate with the most business experience.

But Minneapolis Mayor and Democratic National Committee Vice Chairman R.T. Ryback notes Romney’s victory in the evangelical Christian-dominant, Midwestern state has come with a price.

“It’s clear he still has not closed the sale to win the overwhelming vote of the heartland,” Ryback said during a telephone interview Tuesday. “After five years and tens of millions of dollars, he’s sold himself out to the extreme right wing. They still don’t love him but they have him as a hostage.

“I think it would be a massive shock if Mitt Romney doesn’t win New Hampshire but I don’t think it will prove anything.”

South Carolina Republican voters would likely agree with that assessment given their track record of rejecting Eastern and establishment Republicans in favor of southern, red meat conservatives.

The latest, Suffolk University tracking poll in New Hampshire released Tuesday had Romney with 46 percent of the vote – a 30-point lead over Paul, his nearest rival, with 16 percent.

New Hampshire won’t just be following Iowa’s lead.

Former President George W. Bush in 2000 is the only Republican to win the first caucus and become president since the modern event began four decades ago.

This came after John McCain buried Bush in the New Hampshire primary eight years ago after Iowa voters had spoken.

Joel Maiola is a longtime, Republican strategist who helped both President Bushes win New Hampshire’s four swing electoral votes in general election races.

“Since when do we follow Iowa?” Maiola asked.

Jim Demers is a Democratic consultant and top adviser to President Barack Obama’s New Hampshire campaign in 2008.

“The problem is there is no John McCain in this field that can take out Romney. Nobody has that kind of power of personality and connection with the voters like he did,” Demers said.

Consider the Wall Street Journal poll in Iowa that applies here in which 51 percent of likely GOP voters called the GOP field only “average.”

Romney’s Iowa victory last night came by turning his losing strategy of 2008 on its head.

Four years ago, Romney had the money, prestige, vaunted organization and all the momentum heading into caucus night.

Then a former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee crashed that coronation and waltzed to an eight-point win over a stunned Romney.

This time, Romney played the Hawkeye State expectations game like a Stradivarius, wisely skipping many early events while making the mandatory events in Iowa.

One by one, Romney’s rivals took their turns in the spotlight only to fade to black: former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, then Michele Bachman who won last August’s straw poll, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Georgia businessman Herman Cain and finally Gingrich.

Meanwhile the rival campaigns report Romney was bulking up his old, Iowa organization and the candidate doubled down with a heavy schedule of in-state campaigning during the final week while caucus voter minds were being made up.

“Romney really played Iowa well the second time around. There’s nothing like the school of hard knocks,” said Bruce Berke, a seasoned, GOP operative who helped engineer six congressional victories for New Hampshire Republican Congressman Charles Bass.

Now, Romney must run through the expectations and the firefight gauntlets here over the next six days.

A clearly engaged, Gingrich will fire the first mortar, a full-page ad today in the New Hampshire Union Leader that attacks Romney’s conservative credentials.

Earlier Tuesday he called Romney a “liar” and complicit in pro-Romney Super PAC ads that consumed nearly half the ads that ran in Iowa in the weeks leading up to the pivotal vote.

“You have a chance to send a message in America that the consultant-driven, horribly negative attack politics are wrong in these difficult times we are in,” Gingrich said Tuesday.

Gingrich will underline that theme with an “education town hall” Wednesday morning in Concord.

Unlike Huckabee, the Santorum campaign believes it has the message and the ground game to take advantage of a surprise showing in Iowa.

While attending 360 town hall forums in Iowa, Santorum still made the third most campaign trips here behind Romney and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman who hopes he’ll become the breakthrough candidate here.

Michael Biundo is Santorum’s national campaign manager and a longtime, New Hampshire GOP strategist who orchestrated the upset victory of Frank Guinta for Congress in 2010.

“I feel we have put a lot in place to take advantage on the ground in New Hampshire of a good result here,” Biundo said. “We were determined not to make the mistake Huckabee made in 2008.”

Rochester Republican Sen. Fenton Groen was an early Santorum supporter here who never lost faith.

“This guy has boundless energy and flat out the best record as a consistent conservative of anyone in this race,” Groen said. “He can surprise some people here, too.”

To do so, Santorum will underplay his “Faith, Family and Freedom” message that scored in Iowa for one that stresses his zero tax for manufacturing corporate profits and background as the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner.

Democratic analyst Demers gives Santorum his due.

“I don’t agree with him on any of the major issues but Rick Santorum is the only one who has run retail and grass roots in both early states,” said Demers who saw Democrat Barack Obama try to duplicate the same feat four years ago only to lose narrowly to Hillary Clinton here.

“This was a huge risk for him. Can he pull it off and challenge Romney here? I don’t see it, but Iowa gives all the candidates a second chance in South Carolina to rock Romney’s world.”

Perry and Bachmann are counting on that, which is why they are bypassing the first-primary state completely except for attending obligatory debate and joint candidate appearances this weekend.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.