Romney's New Hampshire Primary Shoe-In: The Race for Second Place Among the Also-Rans

South Carolina, here they come!

Mitt Romney's New Hampshire Vacation. (Dale Stephanos)

At the time of this writing, the results of the New Hampshire primary and the Republican nominating contest are officially in doubt. At the time of this writing, the results of the Republican nominating contest, and to a lesser degree, the New Hampshire primary, couldn’t be more certain.

They weren’t decided Tuesday night; they weren’t decided in Iowa, and they won’t be decided in South Carolina in two weeks. The great secret of presidential campaigns is that despite two years of a carnivalesque drama, fluctuating poll numbers and maybe even a primary-night victory or two, it is pretty easy to tell who the winner will be once the field is set.

Did you really think Howard Dean would carry the Democratic line in 2004, even as he led all polls for most of the run-up to the voting? Did you really think Rudy Giuliani would be the Republican candidate in 2008, even as he opened up double-digit leads in state and national polls? Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are anomalies; on the Republican side, the exceptions are nonexistent. The also-rans—the ones whose turn it isn’t—run for one of two reasons: either they hope to finish in second place, in order to the next guy in line the next time around, or they are running To Prove a Point—that America is about to be taken over by Mexicans, or that moral decay is imminent. Or, this time around at least, they run to raise their profile, make some money off of book sales, get a gig on Fox News. (Has Herman Cain ever made a business move that paid off as much as his aborted attempt to become the Leader of the Free World?)

But gamely they soldier on.

On an autumnal Saturday in Amherst, N.H., Rick Santorum made a quick stop in a mobbed country store on the side of the road. He had skipped an earlier stop at a town nearby when, it was rumored, a bunch of protesters from the Occupy Movement had camped out nearby. After his surprising second-place showing in Iowa four days before, Mr. Santorum, despite having only six years ago lost re-election to the U.S. Senate by a whopping 18 points and having turned into an Internet laughingstock, had become the It Candidate of the field, and hundreds people gathered around a picnic table overlooking a lake to hear his spiel.

Among them was Susan Hutchings, an Occupy protester, who had taken off her knit “Occupy” hat and was disguising herself as a regular, undecided voter in the hopes of asking a question.

“It’s like every four years the circus comes to town. Rich white men come to talk about things that don’t make any sense and then one of them declares himself the ruler of the country for the next four years,” she said.

She is certainly right about one thing: New Hampshire, in the days leading up to the primary, is, in H.L. Mencken’s phrase, better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in. The flinty streets of the Granite State are overrun with PETA protesters in pink piglet costumes; Occupy supporters blowing trombones (“Which side are you on, Which side are you on” they sing as they march in formation down the street, leading one tweedy Republican to sing back, “The other side, the other side”), dreadlocked Ron Paulites determined to make their case every time a rival candidate gets set to speak, where, naturally, they get shouted down by the other candidate’s supporters. (At the Radisson in Nashua, as the “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” chants drowned out the “Paul! Paul! Paul!” ones, a leader of the Paulites threw his hands up in mock resignation, “O.K., your chants are louder than ours! I guess we will just all go home now.”) Reporters seem to outnumber residents, and after campaign events there is a mad dash to get reaction from the regular folks (“Sir! Excuse me! Are you from New Hampshire? No? Can you point me to someone who is?”).

Ru-Paul was there this weekend, holding in court in a Manchester diner to explain how she was tired of being confused with Ron Paul. Carl Paladino, the baseball-bat wielding former New York gubernatorial candidate most famous for sending around emails containing bestiality videos and pictures of Barack and Michelle Obama dressed as a pimp and prostitute, was there too, stumping for Newt Gingrich. It is perhaps the only place in America where one can overhear a high school bragging to his friends, “Oh, my god! I just saw Nikki Haley!”

But if it is a circus, it is a somewhat more muted one this time around, a carnival on the last legs of its tour, the trapeze artists looking a little wobbly up there and the bearded lady shorn down to a stubble. Although the end result of the primary season may be preordained, there are at least usually a couple of candidates who pass the smell test, who could plausibly pass for occupants of the Oval Office. This time around, polls never showed Mitt Romney with less than a double-digit lead.

Romney's New Hampshire Primary Shoe-In: The Race for Second Place Among the Also-Rans