NH results should, but won’t, winnow field

Mitt Romney’s victory in New Hampshire wasn’t quite as big as expected, but it didn’t matter. The former governor, who led a neighboring state and lives much of the year in New Hampshire, did exactly what he set out to do: take control of the race for the Republican nomination. Romney is, as was mentioned last night, the first non-incumbent to win Iowa and New Hampshire in the same cycle — which means more than just bragging rights.

At this point, the question isn’t whether Romney will wrap this up, but rather, when his rivals will decide their efforts are pointless.

Indeed, the traditional value of the early nominating contests is that they start winnowing presidential fields. Candidates make concerted efforts to perform well in Iowa, New Hampshire, or both, and when they fail, these candidates invariably lose attention and fundraising before throwing in the towel.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening. Other than Michele Bachmann, who bowed out a week ago, the current Republican field is filled with candidates who’ve convinced themselves they’re doing just well enough to stick around. They’re deluding themselves, of course, while helping guarantee Romney’s eventual success.

Take Rick Perry, for example. The Texas governor spent $6 million in Iowa and came in a distant fifth. In New Hampshire, where he wasn’t making much of an effort, Perry didn’t quite get 1% of the vote. If there’s a path to the nomination for this guy, it’s a road only he can see.

And then there’s Jon Huntsman, who practically moved to New Hampshire and said for months he fully intended to win the primary. It was the only state in which he had any meaningful organization, making this contest a make-or-break test for his campaign. It was a test he failed — Huntsman ended up with 16.8% of the vote, less than half of Romney’s total.

Huntsman has picked up the undying love of the media, which provided the oxygen that allowed his campaign to breathe, but unless pundits and magazine writers create a 51st state, and that state quickly squeezes itself into the GOP nominating calendar before Super Tuesday, there’s simply no reason for the former Utah governor to continue with the charade.

Huntsman’s father is believed to be the financing force behind the campaign, but after last night, one can only wonder how much longer it’ll be before dad takes away the credit card.

So, now what happens? Attention turns to South Carolina, which will hold its primary a week from Saturday, and where polls show Romney leading. (That lead will likely increase with a post-NH bump.) Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who roughly tied for fourth yesterday, both say they intend to pull out the stops in the Palmetto State. They’ll have to — it will effectively be their last chance.

I doubt it’ll make a difference. With apparently no one dropping out, the right will remain divided, splitting the anti-Romney several ways, and Romney will use his considerable financial advantage to keep his rivals at bay. What’s more, after seeing the Iowa and New Hampshire results, the holdouts in the Republican establishment will likely swallow hard and coalesce around the frontrunner.

In the meantime, Democrats will continue to focus on Romney, and Romney will continue to focus on the White House, marking the beginning of a 10-month general-election phase, even while the Republicans primaries and caucuses continue.