Success of anti-Romney conservative movement may be tied to Huntsman's fate

Mitt Romney‘s chances of wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination before Valentine’s Day is inversely proportional to how strongly former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman finishes in New Hampshire. Should Huntsman, who is in third place in the most recent RealClearPolitics average of polls (in New Hampshire with 11.5 percent) finish in a strong enough second place to enable him to continue his candidacy in South Carolina and Florida, he may take enough votes from Romney going forward to narrow Romney’s lead in those two critical states.

Romney leads the RealClearPolitics average in New Hampshire with 38.5 percent. Ron Paul is second with 19.8 percent. But Huntsman, like Santorum did in the waning days in Iowa, has surged this weekend in a state in which, according to a WMUR poll that was released Monday, nearly half of likely Republican voters still have not settled on a candidate. And with Romney’s monumental lead going into the primary comes expectations that must be met now.

Looking worn down and sounding a bit hoarse, Huntsman had his strongest moment of the campaign cycle this weekend in an exchange with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a Meet The Press/Facebook debate on Sunday. Huntsman strongly took offense at Romney’s criticism of his having served as President Barack Obama’s Ambassador to China in the debate the night before and framed himself as a candidate who would always put his country first, a message that appeals to New Hampshire’s independent voters, who fueled two of John McCain’s wins the past decade in the Granite State’s primary. 

“This nation is divided … because of attitudes like that,” Huntsman said at the debate, speaking of Romney. “He criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China, yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They’re not asking who — what political affiliation the president is.  I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country: I will always put my country first. And I think that’s important to them.”

The Huntsman campaign sensed this was a powerful moment, and quickly cut a campaign commercial, and raised more than $100,000 in less than 24 hours to enable Huntsman to air the commercial on Monday and Tuesday in New Hampshire.

The moment reminded many political watchers of an incident during the 2008 Democratic primary in New Hampshire when Barack Obama seemed to be well on his way to locking up a victory in the Granite State that many thought would propel him to the nomination. The day before that primary, Hillary Clinton teared up, and then went on to shock the political establishment by winning New Hampshire the next evening. She halted Obama’s coronation, and forced him to fight for months to secure the nomination, which he eventually did.

If Huntsman’s moment resonated in the last 48 hours and swung undecided voters to his side, he could also force Romney to work a lot harder for the nomination than he had intended to.

Romney compounded matters on Monday, in response to a question about choosing healthcare services, saying, “I like being able to fire people.”

His rivals pounced on those comments that reinforced the stereotype of Romney as someone out of touch with common Americans.

“Today, Mitt Romney reminded voters why he’s one of the weakest front-runners in presidential history,” Huntsman’s chief strategist John Weaver said in a statement. “History shows that nominating a gaffe-prone, out-of-touch, flip-flopping, inauthentic candidate is a losing strategy. Yet, John Kerry’s legacy lives on with Mitt Romney.”

To compound matters even more, Todd Palin, the husband of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, endorsed Newt Gingrich on Monday, giving life to someone running from Romney’s right flank. 

“Newt Gingrich is a true leader, which he has proven not only since the beginning of his campaign, but throughout his career,” Todd Palin said in a statement.  “Just like Sarah, Newt has faced many successes and challenges.”

“Despite his consultants leaving him last summer, Newt is still standing because of his ideas and his success in the debates — not by spending millions of dollars in campaign ads. As an Independent, I support Newt Gingrich for president because he has a proven record of getting things done, working with Republicans and Democrats, and America needs a leader like Newt right now.”

Palin’s endorsement is likely to give Gingrich a boost in South Carolina, which makes Gingrich’s performance in New Hampshire’s primary even more critical. He is currently tied with Rick Santorum for fourth place in almost every poll that was released this weekend.

If Romney performs below expectations and Huntsman finishes a strong second on Tuesday, the person who finishes ahead between Gingrich and Santorum may have an opening, if not to win the nomination, to at least prolong the presidential nomination battle into April.

Barring unexpected circumstances, Romney will win New Hampshire, which is why second and fourth place may be just as important.

At his final campaign event Monday night in New Hampshire, his 158th in the Granite State, Huntsman said the voters want “a new generation of leadership” and “don’t want the establishment teeing up the same old people.”

Huntsman said voters are fed up with politicians they cannot trust, which has been a central criticism voters have had of Romney.

“Ladies and gentlemen, can you feel the momentum in the air?” Huntsman asked. “We’re going to surprise a whole lot of people.”

Just like the state’s motto, Huntsman’s campaign — and the anti-Romney movement — will live or die on Tuesday based on how strongly Huntsman finishes.