MANCHESTER, NH — Mitt Romney is today in the best position he’s ever been to win the Republican nomination since the campaign began. But even if he stays on track, how long the primary goes — and how ugly it gets — will be pressing issues.
To that end, the top goal for his team and its supporters is to end the fight fast with a crushing display of force in New Hampshire that prevents any of his rivals from gaining more momentum in tougher states like South Carolina and Florida.
“New Hampshire is that state that will catapult him to victory in a very short period of time,” John McCain said in endorsing Romney in Manchester on Wednesday. “That’s why I’m here.”
McCain’s support for his onetime rival highlights one element to keep an eye on: endorsements. If establishment GOP leaders, an unusual number of whom have sat on the sidelines this election, become skittish about whether Romney can quickly dispatch Rick Santorum or whoever else makes a last-minute run without suffering serious general election damage along the way, they may be forced to show their hand and bandwagon behind him early.
Asked about the importance of securing the nomination early, McCain noted that President Obama’s re-election team, which has been picking fights with Romney for weeks, loomed over the GOP race.
“The fact is this is going to be a long tough campaign,” he said. “We already know the Obama campaign has already announced that they’re not going to try to defend their record, they’re going to attack.”
In fact, Democratic officials were at that very event in order to undercut Romney’s momentum by raising expectations.
“He’s almost the hometown governor here, he should be doing very well,” DNC Vice Chair and Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak told TPM before Romney’s speech. “He should be able to win by a landslide here.”
Officially, of course, Romney’s staff is playing the expectations game as any candidate would: by downplaying the importance of the exact margin of victory next week.
“Whether it’s 5 or 10 or 15 or 25, I can’t tell, but a win is a win is a win,” Romney New Hampshire advisor Jim Merrill told TPM. “I think the polls will close up [before the end], but our team is built for the long haul.”
After briefly engaging Newt Gingrich directly last month, Romney is back to running a full-scale frontrunner campaign, ignoring his opponents almost entirely while delivering his best economy-focused general election speech on the stump. The plan is the same as it was when he debuted this strategy months ago — to create an air of inevitability around his candidacy.
But his supporters offered hints that they were taking Santorum’s recent movement seriously. Former governor John Sununu, a key Romney backer in the state who introduced him at a a joint town hall with McCain on Wednesday, notably lingered in his speech on the candidate’s opposition to stem cell research and gay marriage as governor, playing up Romney’s religious right bonafides just as the ultimate social conservative threatens to make a splash.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.