Manchester, New Hampshire—This year’s Republican primaries look increasingly less like a battle and more like a mopping-up action after the fight. The dominant fact of the 2012 GOP contest is the complete absence of plausible alternatives to Mitt Romney. When those plausible alternatives either failed to show up (Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie—though Christie’s manner is probably too thuggish to achieve genuine plausibility) or showed up and turned instantly implausible (Rick Perry), the contest was over even before it began. Ron Paul? Jon Huntsman? Rick Santorum? Newt? Compared to the rest of the field, Romney looks like a giant—which is why the turnout in tonight’s primary and last week’s caucuses was altogether underwhelming.
Jon Huntsman’s attempt to anoint himself the Comeback Kid of this year’s New Hampshire primary took place in a small, jam-packed restaurant on Elm Street, Manchester’s main drag. It was a sub-Clintonian performance, however. Huntsman’s talk was too short and failed to define him sufficiently to the dwindling band of Republican moderates that constitutes his potential base. He did pledge to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and to impose term limits on Congress—always a big applause line among Huntsman backers, who seem more enraged by the right-wing dunces who control the House than they by Barack Obama.
Indeed, much of what Huntsman said could have been said by Obama himself. The appeal to end the partisan divisiveness, the recounting of the successes in the war on al-Qaeda, the refocusing of our foreign policy away from the Mideast to East Asia—these are all themes that Obama has campaigned on or policies that he’s implemented or (with our new defense budget) implementing; Huntsman comes off as nothing so much as an Obama Republican, which is why he has nowhere to go but down after tonight. Paul probably reached his apogee tonight as well. A libertarian, almost all-white state that allows independents to vote in the party primaries and has same-day registration to boot is a state custom-tailored to Paul’s specifications. He probably won't see its like again.
The contrast between the fashionable young people who crowded in to hear Huntsman and the scruffy young rabble that turns out for Ron Paul couldn’t be starker. Huntsman’s cadres may end up torn between Romney and Obama come fall. Paul’s legions will be torn between voting for Romney or, at least as likely, not voting at all.
Indeed, having seen all his serious Republican opponents fall before anyone had actually voted, Romney will now have the arduous task of winning over the supporters of his actual existing opponents. Huntsman, Paul, and Santorum each represents a distinct wing of the party, and their most cherished causes conflict with one another. (Gingrich represents less a wing than a foul mood.) Romney must count on their shared antipathy to Obama to bring them into his column. If he could have won their votes on his own merits, he already would have.