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After New Hampshire: Looks like it’s gonna be Romney

Those hoping for a drawn-out campaign for the Republican nomination are having trouble constructing a narrative.

Mitt Romney points to supporters as he stands on stage with his relatives while speaking at his New Hampshire primary night rally.
Mitt Romney points to supporters as he stands on stage with his relatives while speaking at his New Hampshire primary night rally.

Thoughts after New Hampshire:

Watching Romney cruise to victory in New Hampshire made for a strangely boring night, but seemed full of portents.

A couple of months ago, I found it annoying, bordering on arrogant when David Brooks started describing Mitt Romney as the only entrant in the Republican presidential field who was “plausible” as the nominee. Brooks even backed off the slightly snotty word choice. But after last night, I’m thinking he had it right. Those hoping for a drawn-out campaign for the Repub nomination are having trouble constructing a narrative.

For a change, my analysis isn’t really rooted in history. You’ll hear that no one has ever won Iowa and New Hampshire without winning the nomination and even the more concocted fact that Romney is the only non-incumbent president to win both the early contests. (The number of occurrences behind that fact is really very small. As I’ve mentioned before, the history of the Iowa/New Hampshire axis is really quite short.)

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And yes, I know Romney didn’t exactly win Iowa. But after last night and looking at the current polling, does Iowa co-winner Rick Santorum look like a plausible alternative? As a yankee, and a Catholic, and no special charisma, and not much money nor time to get it done, does he rally South Carolina to his banner? And, if not him, who does?

They also ran
Ron Paul is building a philosophical movement around the twin poles of “liberty” and anti-imperialism. And since he has a special ability to attract younger voters, it may have a future — as a movement. I hope it does. It’s refreshingly honest by the current debased standards of political rhetoric. (I make an exception on the honesty score for his claim that he didn’t know what those racist newsletters were saying in his name.)

But Paul’s support is strongest among non-Republicans, or those who resemble neither the party’s mainstream of conventional pro-business conservatives nor its other, newer mainstream within the Tea Party movement. There has never been a path to the nomination for Dr. Paul. The fact that he was the only alternative to come within 20 percentage points of Romney last night is not a good sign for the anybody-but-Romney crowd.

Jon Huntsman seemed almost delusional last night in his effort to portray a distant third-place finish in the one state where he has camped out as a mandate to go forward to South Carolina, which is not known for embracing Republican moderates. The CNN exit polls showed that Huntsman drew his greatest strength from non-Republicans who disapprove of the Tea Party movement and who are relatively satisfied with the Obama administration. Again, no path to the Repub nomination building on that base.

That leaves Newt Gingrich, whose 9.4 percent of the vote last night barely edged Santorum for fourth place. If the main media narrative on Gingrich is correct, he is staying in the race mostly to exact vengeance for the mugging-by-negative-ads administered to him in Iowa by the Romney-associated (but of course, not coordinated) super PAC.

The major hype of the previous few days was the pending (today?) release of a half-hour film made by a Romney turncoat suggesting Romney’s years at Bain Capital reveal him to be more of a job-cremator than a job creator. (I claim no authorship of the cremator/creator gag. Not sure wherefrom it came.)

Repub strategist Mary Matalin said on CNN last night that this line of attack was actually helping Romney and would backfire on whomever associated themselves with it. Attacking a fellow Republican from the left and seeming to exploit an anti-capitalism argument is “heresy” in Republican circles, and her Repub friends are “aghast” that Gingrich (no, no, not Gingrich, a super PAC run by his former top aides but with which he does not coordinate) would stoop to it.

We’ll see, of course. South Carolinians will make themselves heard a week from Saturday and then Florida and Nevada. And then, of course, all eyes will be on Minnesota’s pivotal Feb. 7 caucuses. Nah.

Well, Matalin’s crystal ball has misled her before, as whose has not. I’m a little shocked at this post myself, since I generally try to avoid getting too far ahead of the known facts. You know, of course, what St. Yogi Berra (or Neils Bohr, or maybe even some Danish writer you never heard of) said about predictions.

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Romney’s big speech
But I did notice that Romney’s very strong victory-claiming speech last night didn’t waste much time talking about his fellow Republican candidates. Aside from a brief, and pretty effective sideswipe against certain unnamed fellow Republicans who would “join forces” with Obama by “putting free enterprise on trial,” the whole speech was about Obama’s alleged record and beliefs, and not exactly an appreciation of those.

I say the speech was strong. I don’t mean that it contained much truth. Really, it was a bunch of applause lines based on uprovable assertions (like the idea that Obama “takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe”) and well-poisoning laugh lines (“this president wakes up every morning, looks out across America and is proud to announce, ‘It could be worse’”) and little prose poems that he obviously plans to keep reciting all year. (Obama “has run out of ideas. Now, he’s running out of excuses. And tonight, we are asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time.”)

David Gergen said last night that this was the biggest speech Romney has delivered all year and he called it a preview of the themes of the general election campaign ahead. I say it is cleverly crafted and will do well with a variety of audiences.

The resonant chord
I’m trying to recall a very powerful magazine article I read years ago (in Harper’s maybe, I can’t find it right now) called “the resonant chord.” Effective political speech is not really about informing the audience nor really about telling you what the candidate plans to do. It operates at a non-rational level by plucking a chord that already exists within you and giving you the feeling that this guy understands what’s bothering you and will make it better.

Romney does it effectively in the passage below, even as he implies that he is laying out a series of concrete differences between himself and Obama. I suggest you read it carefully in that spirit before you start picking it apart:

“This election is a choice between two very different destinies.

“President Obama wants to ‘fundamentally transform’ America. We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great.

“He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.

“This president takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America.

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“This president puts his faith in government. We put our faith in the American people.

“He is making the federal government bigger, burdensome, and bloated. I will make it simpler, smaller, and smarter.

“He raised the national debt. I will cut, cap, and balance the budget.

“He enacted job-killing regulations; I’ll eliminate them.

“He lost our AAA credit rating; I’ll restore it.

“He passed Obamacare; I’ll repeal it.

“When it comes to the economy, my highest priority as president will be worrying about your job, not saving my own.

“Internationally, President Obama has adopted an appeasement strategy. He believes America’s role as leader in the world is a thing of the past. I believe a strong America must — and will — lead the future.

“He doesn’t see the need for overwhelming American military superiority. I will insist on a military so powerful no one would think of challenging it.

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“He chastises friends like Israel; I’ll stand with our friends.

“He apologizes for America; I will never apologize for the greatest nation in the history of the Earth.

“Our plans protect freedom and opportunity, and our blueprint is the Constitution of the United States.

“The path I lay out is not one paved with ever increasing government checks and cradle-to-grave assurances that government will always be the solution. If this election is a bidding war for who can promise more benefits, then I’m not your president. You have that president today.

“But if you want to make this election about restoring American greatness…”