Anything short of a victory is a lethal setback for his campaign. If he wins, he’ll immediately seek to parlay his momentum into Michigan next week–a state he won in the 2000 primaries. New Hampshire and Michigan wins would establish McCain as the sole alternative to Mike Huckabee, potentially infusing his campaign with badly needed cash and positioning him to make a serious push in the February 5 mega-primary.
A decisive loss could eliminate Romney on the spot. If he loses narrowly, he will claim a moral victory, arguing that he’s exceeded expectations and pointing out that he finished in second in the first two contests. With his money, he can hang in the race, but Michigan–where he grew up and where his father served as governor in the 1960s–would then become a do-or-die battle between Romney and McCain. A Romney win tonight would flush McCain from the race, establish Romney as the near-certain winner in Michigan, and position him to corral the party establishment (which fears Mike Huckabee) in advance of February 5.
His expectations are low to non-existent. New Hampshire is not really about how Huckabee will do; it’s about determining who his competition will be in later states.
His appearance in Saturday night’s debate was the first many New Hampshire voters had seen of him in some time. Expectations are low, but psychologically, it would be helpful if he doesn’t finish behind Ron Paul again. Long term, he probably benefits most from a narrow McCain win over Romney–which would keep both of those candidates in the race and prevent either from uniting the establishment, thus leaving the door open (just a crack) for Giuliani.
This state, with its libertarian tradition, is tailor-made for him. If he could finish in third place and above 15 percent, it would make a powerful statement.
Does it really matter?
He needs to win, and he needs to win big enough that the Clintons are not able to repeat their 1992 strategy, when they used a “closer-than-expected” second place finish (7 points behind Paul Tsongas) to create “the Comeback Kid.” Then, he can go for the kill in Nevada (with newfound union support) and South Carolina (where his new lead figures only to grow); a clean sweep of January by Obama would pretty much destroy Hillary’s February 5 “firewall.”
A win is probably asking too much. (She may be falling victim, in part, to the five-day window between Iowa and New Hampshire, which made is nearly impossible for her to recover her footing in time.) But a surprisingly close second place finish (four points?) might allow her to argue that her new strategy (talk vs. results) is resonating and might yet turn the race in her favor. She almost certainly needs to post a win before February 5, though, and with South Carolina now probably out of the question, she’ll have to find a way to make a score in Nevada–even though Obama seems poised to wrap up the pivotal union support there. A third place finish tonight–a remote possibility, but not out of the question–is instantly catastrophic.
The worse Hillary Clinton fares, the better off Edwards is, since Edwards wants a one-on-one race with Obama. If Edwards somehow overtakes her for second place, he might find himself in that position. Otherwise, Hillary will certainly fight on through February 5, which will probably prevent Edwards from breaking through.
See Fred Thompson.