No Republican candidate in the era of primary politics has won without winning Iowa or New Hampshire. Now that Romney has won both, he is the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination. The talk of Romney being a weak frontrunner is meaningless when the real weakness and questions surround the rest of the field. Romney is the prohibitive favorite because there is no credible and strong challenger to Romney at this time. Romney must feel it tonight, because his speech went after Obama in a way that sounded like a warmup for the general election.
Ron Paul is Romney's best friend in this race. By sucking in liberty-loving hard conservatives and doubling it up with anti-war independents, Ron Paul has managed several things. One is attention to his issues, but another is to split and divide the 'Reagan coalition' voters in the '3 legged stool' peeling off small-Government conservatives but delivering an anti-marriage, pro-drug-legalization and anti-military message that is a poke in the eye to national security and social conservatives. Ron Paul is the greatest challenge for the Reagan coalition, a threat to conservative unity, and a gift - unintended - to the status quo establishment by offering an unelectable offering that bleeds off voters behind a Quixotic candidacy.
John Huntsman staked his candidacy on NH, and came it third, achieved by re-using McCain slogans and independent-appealling. What of that? Independent voters was 50% of the New Hampshire electorate. Most of them voted for Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Hunstman tried to spin third into a victory. In reality, Huntsman has no place left to go, except a single digit performance in future states.
Santorum's bounce was muted, and with Gingrich and Santorum both fighting for 4th and 5th place, neither can claim a strong enough showing to best the other as the "conservative choice" - this is the best situation for Romney, made even better with Rick Perry trying to recapture some fire. This is not a good result for social conservatives.
Newt Gingrich and his Bain attacks are failing to dent Romney but is now unwisely inserting anti-capitalist populism into the race. Mary Matalin on CNN: "The conservative intelligensia are agast" at the attacks on Romney's efforts at Bain. Gov Perry is falling into the same trap, talking about items that just make them sound desperate and small-minded and overtly populist. This tactic leads to losing any reason for picking them over Romney - for if they aren't going to be stronger conservative, if they don't have a stronger conservative agenda and alternative, they will be no better than Romney. Newt Gingrich has since Iowa managed to damage his own image without visibly denting Romney's poll ratings.
Rick Perry had no speech. He ended up with a press release about the conservative alternative. Only 1% of New Hampshire voters felt we need a Perry alternative to Romney.
Even though every Romney alternative did poorly, nobody left the race. The continued fractured field helps Romney. We are now in a position where Romney is likely to win South Carolina over the fractured field.
What else lost? Perry's "let's go back to Iraq" and Santorum's sabre rattling lost. They were bested by Ron Paul, picking up isolationist and anti-war vote support, and by Huntsman, calling to get out of Afghanistan. Social conservatism is losing, as the social conservative Santorum was not able to extend into other parts of electorate. In short, the lack of conservative alternative is related to the fact that conservative unity is fracturing, as different components of the Reagan coalition has decided to find a different 'favorite' - none of whom could claim to be full-bore best conservative on all three legs of Reagan's conservative coalition. This fracturing is the real serious problem we face, far more serious than the mere fact that a more conservative candidate can't rise to outpoll Romney.
If it's not ironic enough that we are running the author of Romneycare to go up against the President who gave us Obamacare, let's ponder the irony that we may have to depend on someone from the Romney wing of the party to keep the Reagan coalition together. Meanwhile, there is a Staples commercial going on during the coverage of the election tonight - point Romney.