Republican presidential candidates were swarming on Thursday on New Hampshire, the small Northeastern State that offers the next harvest of nominating delegates in the party’s bid to evict President Barack Obama from the White House.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was intent on bolstering his new status as the party’s top conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor and favourite of the Republican establishment.
Mr. Santorum came within just eight votes out of 122,000 cast of defeating Mr. Romney in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, the nation’s first nominating test. New Hampshire holds its primary election on January 10, 2012 and will be awash in campaigning and political advertising for the next five days.
Mr. Santorum is running as an unabashed social conservative and opponent of abortion and gay marriage. Those positions, backed by his openly religious world view, caught fire in Iowa, where he came roaring upward in the final days of the campaign from single-digit polling support to a virtual tie with the more moderate Mr. Romney.
New Hampshire voters, however, are more moderate as well, and it seemed unlikely that Mr. Santorum’s message would find the same natural constituency as it did in Iowa. Polls had shown him running far behind Mr. Romney, the heavy favourite in New Hampshire the small New England State where he has a summer home. Mr. Romney is well known to voters in the State from his days as Governor in neighbouring Massachusetts.
Republicans have found themselves deeply at odds this election year over which candidate is best suited to challenge the deeply vulnerable Mr. Obama in the November election. The party mainstream believes Mr. Romney, with his executive experience as Governor and businessman, will best resonate with voters nationally who are distressed by the state of the U.S. economy under Mr. Obama.
The economic recovery from the 2007-2009 Great Recession has been slow, and unemployment remains unacceptably high three years after Mr. Obama took office. While polls show most Americans blame his predecessor, President George W. Bush, for the economic collapse, Mr. Obama now carries the full weight of the recovery.
Mr. Romney has not been able to raise his support beyond the 25 per cent level in national opinion polls. He won just under 25 per cent of the vote in Iowa.
Some Republicans see Mr. Romney as insufficiently conservative on abortion, health care and other issues, and that creates a natural opening for Mr. Santorum as other conservative candidates leave the race.
The Republican field narrowed a little on Wednesday with congresswoman Michele Bachmann dropping out after a last-place showing in Iowa.
But Mr. Santorum has significant hurdles to climb if he hopes to prove that he is not the latest in a series of challengers who briefly topped polls only to fade quickly like Ms. Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. After hinting that he might drop out, Mr. Perry announced on Wednesday he would stay in the race. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman skipped the Iowa caucuses in hopes of making his mark in New Hampshire.
It will be difficult for Santorum to recreate his success in Iowa, where he had campaigned almost nonstop for months. Mr. Santorum has only a skeleton staff in other States and has very little money.
Mr. Romney is much better placed with campaign staff and financing. He has campaigned as the candidate best-positioned to defeat Mr. Obama. On Wednesday, he picked up the endorsement of the 2008 Republican Presidential nominee, John McCain, who defeated Mr. Romney in his bid for the nomination that year.