Could John McCain pull it off in New Hampshire once again? The newest numbers suggest he at least has a shot at it – which is more than anyone expected a few months ago.
Right now, Mitt Romney still leads the G.O.P. pack with a healthy 34 percent. He remains the clear favorite in the state, where he has invested heavily in T.V. ads and personal time and where he retains some extra goodwill among (some) Republican voters from his stint as Governor of neighboring Massachusetts. (He also owns a summer house on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro.)
But McCain is within striking distance, at 22 percent. More importantly, the new poll shows that, for the first time since the summer, he has broken free of the rest of the G.O.P. pack. He may now be positioned as the default non-Romney choice in the state.
To have any chance at the G.O.P. nomination, McCain must, obviously, win New Hampshire. He has several factors working in his favor: The surprise endorsement of the (Manchester) Union-Leader, which loves trying to throw its weight around in state politics (with mixed results, though: this is the paper that backed Pierre duPont in 1988); residual goodwill from 2000, when he blew George W. Bush away in the state; the renewal of his maverick reputation, which may prompt independent voters (there are tons of them in New Hampshire primaries) to take a second look at him; and a potentially clear shot at Romney in the state, with Fred Thompson disappearing, Rudy Giuliani pulling his money out, and Mike Huckabee simply not catching on.
But there are reasons to be skeptical as well. For one, he badly needs Romney to fall on his face in Iowa. The resulting negative press would give pause to many of Romney’s soft supporters in New Hampshire, whereas a Romney win in Iowa – especially now that Huckabee is the favorite there – would make a follow-up win in New Hampshire all but certain.
McCain would also benefit from a Hillary Clinton win in Iowa. Why? Because it would all but lock up the nomination for her, making New Hampshire much less of an event on the Democratic side. In that environment, the independents that are so key to McCain’s fortunes would be more likely to vote in the G.O.P. primary. Also, a Hillary win in Iowa would focus the G.O.P. electorate on her inevitability, perhaps making a candidate like McCain – who is looking more and more like the Republican most capable of beating Hillary – more attractive.
It’s not out of the question that McCain can score another win in the Granite State. But he doesn’t have as much control over his fortunes as he did eight years ago.