With race still Romney's to lose, where does everyone else go after N.H.?

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Although Mitt Romney’s 36 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary was only about 5 percentage points more than his showing in the same state when he lost to John McCain four years ago, there was very little talk among pundits or pols headquarters that he was a wounded front-runner.

“A win is a win is a win,” went the mantra from Romney headquarters, with supporters of the former Massachusetts governor reminding reporters that their man is the first non-incumbent GOPer ever to win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Any downplaying of Romney’s performance was drowned out by the speculation of what his opponents would do now.  Here are the questions that will be discussed and perhaps answered in the days ahead.

Does Ron Paul go on or go rogue?

In predicting a Romney win, former Gov. John Sununu and other observers of their state’s politics accurately called Ron Paul the No. 2 finisher.  As it was in Iowa when he took about 23 percent of the vote, Paul again came in with about a fourth of the vote in the Granite State.

In all likelihood, the libertarian Republican will score about the same in coming contests in South Carolina, Florida, and other states so long as he continues in the GOP running.  The major question about Paul —  won sure to give Republican operatives nationwide some sleepless nights — is whether he will abandon their party and run as an independent or Libertarian this fall.

Almost to a person, the Paul campaigners who spoke to HUMAN EVENTS signaled that they not only would support him if he went rogue, but that they would do so with enthusiasm.  As J.B. Webb, a Manchester carpenter brandishing a Paul placard outside the polling place in Merrimack, told us: “Absolutely I would back him,  He’s the only politician I would consider voting for.”

Can Huntsman build on third place?

In winning the coveted “third place” with 18 percent of the vote, Jon Huntsman clearly has enough support for him to be  a competitor for the nomination in the South Carolina primary January 21 and perhaps the Florida primary on the 31st.  Huntsman has backing from a number of political pros in the Palmetto State, among them former State Attorney General Henry McMaster and the two sons of the late and revered Gov. Carroll Campbell, Mike and Carroll, III.

“And we have a strong team in Florida,” Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller told us shortly before the balloting.

But as much as Huntsman can legitimately bask in his triumph in New Hampshire, he may not be able to have many others of its nature.  Where a CNN survey showed that 60 percent of likely primary voters in New Hampshire considered themselves “moderate” or “liberal” on social issues, Huntsman’s niche as the least conservative of primary hopefuls did not hurt.  This will not be the case in South Carolina, a state like Iowa in which evangelical conservatives pack a wallop in GOP politics. 

Moreover, where Huntsman benefited from his sharp response to Romney’s criticism of his service as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, a past appointment by the Democratic president seems unlikely to burnish his credentials among South Carolina voters. In contrast to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, the contest in Florida will be the first of the year closed to Republican voters.

Is South Carolina the last stand for Santorum and Gingrich?

In all likelihood it is.  Gingrich and Santorum went back and forth in fourth or fifth place with 11 percent or 10 percent of the vote and both are likely to continue to South Carolina. Gingrich (who predicted to HUMAN EVENTS Tuesday he would probably place third) emphasized he has a growing organization in the state.  As he had in Iowa and New Hampshire, former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum can also count on a strong cadre of cultural conservatives he can depend on for South Carolina. As was the case in Iowa and New Hampshire, he is not likely to have the money necessary for a television campaign.

The question for both — aside from whether they will draw from common support — is whether Santorum and Gingrich can continue their shoe-string efforts beyond January 21.

His modest performance aside, Mitt Romney had a good night January 10th.  For all others — except near-certain departee Rick Perry — about the only certain thing that can be said is they will be around for a bit longer.  What is unclear is how much longer.