In politics, success breeds success. That's why Mitt Romney is looking strong as attention turns to the next Republican primary in South Carolina.
Any expectations that Romney's fortunes might fade were overturned Tuesday in New Hampshire. The former Massachusetts governor won a solid plurality with some 39 percent of the vote — more than 15 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Perhaps as importantly, the order of the finish in New Hampshire left no other candidate clearly positioned to stand as Romney's chief competitor in South Carolina on Jan. 21.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who had based his candidacy on a strong performance in New Hampshire, finished third. And the disappointing showings for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — they essentially tied for fourth — means that the former House speaker and the former Pennsylvania senator will each continue to struggle to establish himself as the leading conservative alternative to Romney.
"Romney will get a big boost going into South Carolina, and the only way to stop him would be for the right to unite behind one of two candidates who did very poorly in New Hampshire," says Charlie Arlinghaus, who directs a free-market think tank in Concord, N.H.
"If Romney wins the first three contests, it's over," he says, and Romney won the closely contested Iowa caucuses — by eight votes over Santorum — before romping in New Hampshire. "Nobody else will have the resources to compete."
Don't Start Counting Chickens
With only two states having voted, it would be premature to say the nomination is assuredly Romney's. The electorate in South Carolina looks different from the more moderate and independent-minded voters of New Hampshire.
"Because New Hampshire is such a political anomaly and unrepresentative of the GOP base, it is not only possible but is likely that conservatives will continue to form a consensus and unite to present a viable challenge to the establishment candidate," says John Stemberger, chairman of the Florida Family Action PAC, a social-conservative group.
How South Carolina votes will indicate Republican preferences throughout the South in general, says Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative and former presidential candidate.
"Clearly, Romney's victory in New Hampshire was impressive, and he's building momentum, but I think South Carolina really is the key state," says Bauer, who endorsed Santorum there on Sunday.
"It is still more than possible that South Carolina ends up being a race between Romney and Santorum," Bauer says. "If Santorum can pull it off, the field narrows a little, and they go into Florida, and I think anything can happen."
Who's The Alternative?
But the other candidates considered most conservative in the race — Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — are hardly conceding the "anti-Romney" vote to Santorum. Santorum was unable to build in New Hampshire on his strong showing in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
"Nobody expected Santorum to barnstorm New Hampshire, but he really needed to capitalize on his Iowa 'tie-victory' to set himself up as the true 'anybody but Romney' candidate," says Scott Huffmon, a pollster associated with Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
For his part, Gingrich is likely to continue the sort of attacks he launched against Romney in the closing days of the New Hampshire race. After vowing to run a positive campaign, Gingrich is poised to further unleash negative ads and videos.
"South Carolina is known for its rough and tumble politics," says Curtis Loftis, the state treasurer in South Carolina and Romney's campaign director there. "The ads are flying here, and none of them are polite."
That's one reason Loftis isn't ready to declare victory for his candidate yet. But he says he's pleased with Romney's position nonetheless.
With reason. Recent polls have suggested that Romney was already opening up a lead in South Carolina even before his big win on Tuesday.
Although there's been a lot of speculation about whether social conservatives will block Romney's path to victory, they haven't been able to unite behind a single alternative.
"Unless the social conservatives want to go out with a whimper, they better pull forces together now in South Carolina," says Bruce Ransom, a political scientist at Clemson University. "It's not clear at this point that will be possible."
Although the state's GOP electorate is sometimes portrayed as "far-right wing," it's actually a more complicated mix of fiscal conservatives, retired military and libertarians, says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
"It's basically gone for not the more centrist candidate, but the more establishment candidate," Guth says. "It looks for a winner as well."
'Slim, But Possible'
Given Romney's many advantages — in terms of fundraising, organizational strength and now momentum — it's difficult to see how anyone else can find a clear path to victory in South Carolina or beyond, says Huffmon, the pollster at Winthrop.
It's possible, he says, that Perry could have a "Southern reinvention" and regain the kind of support he enjoyed as the field's front-runner for a brief period last summer. But that may prove unlikely.
"There will still be a number of factions holding out hope that their guy can win, when I don't see how you can stop this thing," says Chip Felkel, a veteran GOP strategist in South Carolina who is not affiliated with any of the current hopefuls.
Huntsman is not expected to be a strong candidate in South Carolina, observers there say. And there may be a ceiling on Paul's support there as well.
"Paul has his avid supporters, but will have about the same percentage here he's had elsewhere," says Guth, the Furman professor.
Given the size of Romney's New Hampshire victory, Felkel says, it's going to be harder for other candidates to convince their supporters that they still have a chance — and are worthy of more financial support.
"Is there a possibility that somebody can beat Romney?" Huffmon says. "Slim, but possible."
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.