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Can Rick Santorum Pull Off an Upset in New Hampshire?

BRENTWOOD, N.H.—During all those lonely months in Iowa, wandering from Pizza Ranch to dingy motel, wondering if 10 voters would show up at the next event, Rick Santorum must have fantasized about his return to New Hampshire, powered by a stunning upset in the caucuses. Somehow, though, it is doubtful that Santorum imagined that his first event in the state would be held in the auditorium of a nursing home. Or that maybe a third of the crowd would drift away before Santorum finished speaking.

For nearly 90 minutes, Santorum answered random voter questions. It was a stunning performance—though not in the way that the candidate may have wished. In his affect, he was perhaps most remiscent of the Jack Kemp of 1988, who regaled would-be supporters with lectures about obscure Austrian economists. Indeed, rather than deliver a thematic message that would arouse conservatives desperate for a champion to take on Mitt Romney, Santorum rambled through a 20 minute discourse on Social Security, which even included the former Pennsylvania senator chiding the sainted Ronald Reagan for raising the retirement age. Instead of providing inspiration, Santorum offered rueful comments like “I know this isn’t popular, but…” At one point, the candidate even conceded, “I always step on my applause lines.”

It is a mistake to over-react to a single appearance slapped together by a Santorum campaign undoubtedly stunned by their sudden success. As Santorum spoke, there were occasional hints that he might arouse the forces of conservative class resentment that powered Pat Buchanan to an unexpected victory in the 1996 GOP primary. But with so little time (and with no apparent plan to spend the money that is gushing in at the rate of $1 million a day) Santorum is unlikely to seize the opportunity that has been handed to him. That is the inherent problem with insurgent campaigns: They are ill-equipped to handle (virtual) victory.

New Hampshire right now is a blessed land where polls are shockingly irrelevant. This halcyon moment will only last a day or two until the pollsters catch up with Santorum coming so close to winning Iowa that an extra $27 (based on his bargain-rate of about $3 of campaign expenditure per vote) would have put him over the top. The last New Hampshire poll conducted before the Iowa caucuses had Santorum at a whopping 6 percent. That number undoubtedly has doubled and maybe even tripled in the wake of his Iowa almost. But it will take a day or so for the turbulent news environment to calm before the weekend’s debate double-header, which means that all of us in the press pack are like soothsayers crippled by a sudden shortage of chicken entrails.

As instinct and hunch briefly rule, it is worth remembering that New Hampshire is the secular stop on the GOP’s early playing field. Just 23 percent of GOP primary votes in 2008 identified themselves as “evangelical Christians” and fewer than half attend church more than a few times a year. The ideological portrait of the New Hampshire electorate is equally idiosyncratic. According to 2008 exit polls, 33 percent of GOP voters were moderates and another 11 percent belonged to that reputedly extinct species called liberal Republicans. To summarize: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Iowa any more.”

The New Hampshire primary (my favorite event on the political calendar) has always been shaped by dedicated voters and equally dedicated late deciders (50 percent of 2008 GOP voters made up their minds in the final week). With a Saturday night debate (sponsored by ABC, Yahoo! News and WMUR, the dominant TV station in the state) and a Sunday morning face-off on “Meet the Press,” voters will have many valid reasons to shift their allegiances during the last-minute frenzy before the January 10 primary.

With all the caveats in the world—coupled with vivid memories of the press pack confidently making wrong calls in New Hampshire from Walter Mondale in 1984 to Barack Obama in 2008—here is an initial run-down on the four contenders sans sweater vest:

Mitt Romney. Four years ago, the former Massachusetts governor (who swept the Boston bedroom communities) came with 13,000 votes of beating John McCain in the state that launched the now-discontinued maverick brand in 2000. Even suggesting that Romney (who has topped 40 percent in some recent polls) might theoretically lose New Hampshire can spark the kind of mockery that might accompany pumping for a Draft Cheney movement.

Yet Romney’s Wednesday’s lunch-time, welcome-to-New-Hampshire rally at Manchester’s Central High School prompted just the tiniest flicker of doubt. When you subtract the senior class at the high school and the media hordes, there were maybe 200 New Hampshire Republicans (all carefully massed for better imagery) awaiting the undisputed primary front-runner. It may have seemed impressive to the Romney organizers for the mayor of Manchester to introduce former Governor (and White House chief of staff) John Sununu to introduce freshman Senator Kelly Ayotte who introduced the candidate and his ultimate VIP endorser John McCain. The message that came through to me, though, was that this pile-up of endorsements was designed to bludgeon voters into submission. Dating back to Ed Muskie in 1972 (whose campaign came unglued in New Hampshire), this mixture of tepid enthusiasm and heavy-handed establishment imprimatur can be a formula for primary disappointment.

Ron Paul. Yes, he has been consistently polling near 20 percent in the “Live Free or Die” state. Yes, he has passionate followers. But organization matters far less in New Hampshire than Iowa since voters here are pre-disposed out of civic obligation to vote in the primary that is the state’s leading tourist attraction. Also, strangely, Paul is the only New Hampshire contender who has displayed no urgency in actually campaigning in the first primary state. Of course, that may be a deliberate strategy since the idea of Ron Paul can be far more appealing than the reality. Or as Santorum put it in Brentwood when asked about his nephew who is a libertarian, “He’s a Ron Paul supporter. God bless him. It’s a phase.”

Jon Huntsman. It is tempting to be charitable to the leading Republican presidential contender—that is, if the only people being polled are liberals. And, yes, I too plead guilty of being a little soft on Huntsman. But I am also aware that he is the candidate who belongs on American bland-stand. As University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala puts it, “Huntsman is running McCain’s campaign without the charisma.”

Newt Gingrich. Rocked by one of the worst pummelings in recent presidential history—and no better at responding than Bill Bradley against Al Gore in 2000—Gingrich needs to prove that he can write a third (or is a fourth?) act for his White House run. The only thing that Gingrich has in his favor is that, unlike Iowa, the race here may be shaped by the two debates in the final weekend.

In short, the next five days promise a fascinating political end game. My instincts, which are far from infallible, tell me that Romney can be beaten. The complication is that I do not see how any of the candidates running against him (with the possible exception of Santorum) can pull it off.

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He also writes the “Character Sketch” column for Yahoo! News. Follow him on twitter @waltershapiroPD.