Former Governor Mitt Romney did what he had to do in New Hampshire.
He won convincingly in a crowded field. Following the brutal closing days of the campaign, when all his opponents ganged up on him, nobody can claim that Romney has not proven an ability to take a punch.
The headlines were buoyant for the candidate after the win:"Romney in the Driver's Seat", "Can Romney be stopped"?. "As Good as It Gets for Romney."
With the exception of extreme conservatives, Romney displayed an ability to carry conservatives in New Hampshire while demonstrating across the board support. This will allow him to push back against arguments that he is not acceptable to the majority of his party. Romney's performance surpassed his 2008 New Hampshire showing when he lost to Senator John McCain, the eventual nominee.
Romney is also getting favorable reviews on the performance by his campaign organization, particularly in terms of identifying supporters and bringing them out to the polls. A professional campaign organization is a positive reflection on the candidate, given the plausible assumption that if one cannot run a campaign how can we be sure that you can run the White House?
Perhaps more importantly, the opposition to Romney was in even further disarray. While it is not unanimous, the prevailing consensus is that New Hampshire represented a failure for John Huntsman. Huntsman had put most of his eggs into the New Hampshire basket and had crisscrossed New Hampshire the way Rick Santorum had done in Iowa. In addition to boots on the ground, Huntsman also blanketed the airwaves with massive ad buys.
10% of the electorate and a third place finish is a meager reward for such an investment in New Hampshire. Additionally many of Huntsman's voters were independents who were allowed to vote in New Hampshire's Republican primary. In states that have closed primaries open only to registered Republicans, Huntsman will not be able to count on the independents. Romney effectively saw off the only opponent to his left.
Romney can take even greater satisfaction when he looks to the right. Had Rick Santorum followed up his success in Iowa with an apparent success in New Hampshire he could have offered a convincing case for conservatives to close ranks behind him. He didn't do this with a fifth place finish.
Newt Gingrich was getting criticism at the end of the campaign for going after Romney too aggressively, to the point of emulating Obama-style class warfare. Rick Perry, Romney's only opponent with the financial stamina for a protracted race received a laughable 1%. Even if Perry were to partially recoup his fortunes in the upcoming South Carolina primary, his electoral vulnerability in crucial swing states (New Hampshire is regarded as a battleground state this year) has been exposed.
Ron Paul showed strength and finished second but if he is the conservative alternative to Romney, the game is effectively over.
South Carolina has become a must win for Romney's opponents. Romney has already been endorsed by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Florida Senator Marco Rubio is under pressure to endorse Romney prior to the January 31 Florida primary.
The bandwagon is beginning to form. If Romney extends his streak, first in South Carolina and then on the more favorable terrain of Florida even the most confirmed doubters will soon have to resign themselves to a Romney nomination.