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Reaper or Redeemer: New Hampshire primary can kill a candidacy or save it

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 12:34 p.m. MDT

This family photo from the 1960\'s provided by Romney for President, Inc. shows Mitt Romney, left, with his father George, center, and his brother Scott at their home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Romney Family) This family photo from the 1960\'s provided by Romney for President, Inc. shows Mitt Romney, left, with his father George, center, and his brother Scott at their home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Romney Family)

To revisit some of the most iconic moments of past New Hampshire campaigns, click here.

While a 20-year-old Mitt Romney was serving a Mormon mission in France in January 1968, his father, George, was in New Hampshire frenetically shaking hands (11,826 in his first five days) and desperately trying to knock down bowling pins. In a photo op in Franklin, the popular Michigan governor persisted in trying to pick up a spare, rolling thirty-three balls before getting the last pin.

As Mitt Romney shook hands in New Hampshire this past week, he was attempting for a second time to grasp the prize that eluded his father in 1968. George never actually lost in New Hampshire — he withdrew two weeks before the primary, when polls showed him trailing Richard Nixon by a ratio of 3 to 1.

Mitt now tries to earn his own spare in New Hampshire, as it were. His 2008 loss to McCain here, following hard on his decisive setback in Iowa the previous week, drove Romney's 2008 effort off course and set McCain on the path to the nomination.

New Hampshire does that to people. This week, the hope carried into New Hampshire by dark horses like Jon Huntsman and limping stallions like Newt Gingrich is also a historic burden. In the modern era of presidential primaries that began in 1976, only once has a candidate of either party who failed to win either Iowa or New Hampshire won the nomination. Bill Clinton accomplished the feat in 1992, but he doesn't count because the Iowa caucuses that year were uncontested and Sen. Tom Harkin cruised, sweeping up 76 percent of the vote in his home state. That left New Hampshire in the role of the opening gun, and second place was good enough.

Like Iowa, New Hampshire is a symbolic prize that heavily influences the states that follow. On the upside, New Hampshire offers a second chance and a fresh start to those who stumbled in Iowa. It's a last chance for retail, small-town politics before the campaign suddenly escalates in speed and scope, leaping beyond the reach of underfunded, understaffed dark horse candidates. But also like Iowa, it has the reputation of a wolf thinning the herd, a brutal early test of electoral viability.

Sitting presidents twice have been forced out of reelection bids by adverse results here. Both were mired in intractable and unpopular wars. In 1952, a Harry Truman burdened by Korea bowed out after losing the state, while in 1968 Vietnam-entangled Lyndon Johnson followed suit after surrendering 42 percent to anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy.

In 1992, another sitting president got an early peek at his pink slip when George Bush gave up nearly 40 percent to Patrick Buchanan, a cranky, populist commentator who had never run for office. Sen. Robert Dole was not an incumbent in 1996, but he was a very presumptive nominee when similarly served noticed by Buchanan, who defeated Dole in New Hampshire by 3,000 votes after nearly winning in Iowa as well. Failing to rally a dispirited base, Dole went on to a dismal showing against Clinton.

On the other hand, candidates named Clinton have twice revived their campaigns here. Hillary Clinton came back from her third-place 2008 Iowa finish to narrowly edge Barack Obama here, leading to a battle that reached into June. In 1992, Bill Clinton was in free fall heading into New Hampshire, stymied by allegations of extramarital affairs. But after he went on 60 Minutes with his wife, he bounced back to place second, as noted above, losing to Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas by just eight points.

Tsongas was on home turf, since Massachusetts and New Hampshire share a media market and much of southern New Hampshire commutes to Boston. So Tsongas' victory was discounted. That turf discount, combined with Clinton's recent travails, allowed Clinton to declare himself the "Comeback Kid," and Tsongas never recovered from his own "win."

Another Massachusetts figure used home turf to better advantage in 1988. Coming out of Iowa in third place, Gov. Michael Dukakis notched a 16-percentage-point victory in New Hampshire, before going on to sweep the Super Tuesday primaries and cruise to the nomination. That New Hampshire win pushed Dukakis to the front of a much-derided pack of weak candidates known collectively as the "Seven Dwarfs" and sometimes "the Carpool."

Like Tsongas and Dukakis, Mitt Romney is essentially at home here. He lives in Boston and owns a summer home in New Hampshire. This made his 2008 loss to McCain all the more devastating. But the truth was more complicated. McCain had bested George W. Bush in New Hampshire in 2000, and in 2008 McCain had made it his second home, ignoring Iowa and crisscrossing the state by bus.

This year promises to be very different. New Hampshire's GOP primary voters are much less conservative and evangelical than Iowa's. This now favors Romney as a Mormon centrist. He was vulnerable in 2008 in a field of three moderates (Romney, McCain, Giuliani) and one conservative (Huckabee). Now, paradoxically, New Hampshire's centrism now favors him as the dominant moderate (alongside Huntsman) in a field otherwise seen as sharply ideological in style and tone, if not purely conservative in substance (Perry, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul).

Polls and prominent and prominent analysts are betting heavily that Romney will get his spare. Nate Silver's statistical analysis give him 99 percent certainty. Intrade stands at 96.9 percent .

With a win here, Romney would be the first Republican nonincumbent in the modern primary era to win both New Hampshire and Iowa. On the Democratic side, only John Kerry managed this in 2004. Even more significant, however, is the burden on his closest rivals. Except Santorum, his co-winner in Iowa, all the others — including the once-soaring Newt Gingrich — will be forced to make history if they expect to come back after failing to redeem an Iowa loss with a New Hampshire win. The dynamics of American politics may have shifted so much that this is less daunting than it appears. But don't bet on it.

Eric Schulzke is the director of the Apollo 13 Project (a13.org), a prisoner reentry initiative based at Utah Valley University. He can be reached at eric[at]a13.org.

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