THE NEW YORK TIMES
Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012 | 2 a.m.
There were no surprises in New Hampshire Tuesday night: Mitt Romney won with almost 40 percent of the vote, followed by libertarian darling Ron Paul and the independents’ newfound choice, Jon Huntsman.
While the outcome added to Romney’s front-runner status, the shake-up in the rest of the field could cause him some headaches down the line.
Romney’s team is already on the ground in South Carolina and Florida, making a double-barreled push for an early victory, but has no plans to let up the pressure in Nevada. Depending on how successful he is on the trail (and he’s looking pretty strong), Romney may need Nevada to resolidify his lead.
Let’s face it: Nevada is Mitt Romney’s to lose.
By the time Romney comes through the fire of the conservative South, however, the anti-Romney messaging that began in New Hampshire from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum may have left scars that will still be showing in the general election.
Nevada is where voters are most closely divided between Romney and President Barack Obama, according to a recent analysis by Public Policy Polling. Obama may have won the Silver State handily in 2008, but he seems to be in trouble for November: What was once a 12-point advantage for the president is now a tie.
Romney has staked his claim to the Oval Office primarily on his private-sector experience running Bain Capital, a Boston-based consulting firm.
Obama’s campaign and Democrats generally have been trying to paint Romney as a corporate fat cat who raked in millions while slashing the jobs and destroying the livelihoods of thousands of middle-class Americans.
In the past week, they’ve had some help, particularly from Gingrich.
During Sunday morning’s NBC/Facebook debate Gingrich accused Romney of engaging “in behavior where (he) looted a company,” and the pro-Newt group “Winning our Future” is releasing a 28-minute documentary Wednesday, painting Romney as “more ruthless than Wall Street” and accusing him of “exploiting dozens of American businesses” and “playing the system for a quick buck,” according to the trailer.
Santorum warned on a New Hampshire radio show last week that a Romney nomination would “destroy this country,” referring to Romney’s role creating the state health care plan that became the model for Obama’s national health care overhaul.
Such developments are a dream come true for Democrats, who hope to reap the rewards of Republicans going negative against Romney.
“These revelations have led to a precipitous drop in Mitt Romney’s support — and his failure to perform better in the Granite State is a significant setback for both his campaign and his candidacy for president,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement Tuesday night.
To conservatives, they’re a nightmare.
“This is not a campaign for the presidency. That’s not what this is anymore. This is payback time,” popular conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners Tuesday. “It drove (Gingrich) nuts, that series of ads that Romney’s Super PAC ran in Iowa ... This is not the kind of stuff that you want said by Republicans. Even the establishment Republicans don’t go after conservatives this way.”
The pro-Romney PAC “Restore our Future” went after Gingrich in Iowa with about $4 million worth of attack ads ripping apart his image as a conservative: The barrage is largely credited with ending Gingrich’s surge in the polls.
Gingrich once called for Romney to demand the negative campaigning stop. But negative ads are like the contents of Pandora’s box: Once you let them out, they’re difficult to put back in.
“I’ve taken the governor’s advice,” Gingrich said of his new approach at Sunday’s debate.
Romney and his campaign have denied the accusations and characterizations, claiming that Romney created at least 100,000 net jobs during his time as the CEO of Bain.
But facts and figures may not be what counts here: In politics, impressions matter, and there are few places in the country where economic characterizations could hit as close to home as in job-bereft Nevada. Romney knows that: He featured Nevada early on, in everything from his first national campaign commercial to the unveiling of his jobs plan to highlight the plight of people in economic turmoil.
Of course, Romney blames Obama for the state of the economy in Nevada. But if Romney emerges as the Republican nominee, the person that all the negative campaigning will help is Obama, in Nevada and beyond.
Ironically, if this tearing-down of Romney from within the Republican ranks does shift Nevada to Obama’s favor, it will all be thanks to one of the state’s most deep-pocketed Republican activists — and Gingrich supporters: The anti-Romney documentary that’s scheduled for release Wednesday is being financed with the help of a $5 million gift from Las Vegas Sands’ Sheldon Adelson.