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In New Hampshire, Serene Romney Rides Out Final Hours Before Primary

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney talks to the press after speaking at Gilchrist Metal Fabricating in Hudson, N.H., on Jan. 9.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney talks to the press after speaking at Gilchrist Metal Fabricating in Hudson, N.H., on Jan. 9.

As Mount Washington calmly reigns over much of New Hampshire's geography, Mount Romney smiles down on the last day before the state holds the nation's first presidential primary.

The front-running former governor of neighboring Massachusetts spent the day getting chummy with crowds in Nashua and Hudson and Bedford, reciting his favorite lines from "America the Beautiful" and engaging in other behaviors just as risky. He came out in favor of free enterprise and job creation and got really cross with the Chinese for currency manipulation and intellectual property theft.

There is no reason for Romney to take risks, of course, because the primary is tomorrow. And despite the lukewarm way most Republicans respond to him here, no one challenger has emerged to capitalize on the dissatisfaction.

The Suffolk University tracking poll, an excellent measure in past primaries, has Romney falling 10 percentage points in the last five days. In some years, such a tumble would spell real trouble. But Romney was leading his nearest rival by more than 20 points a week ago, and most of that lead remains.

The nearest rival, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, is stuck at 20 percent. Moving up in this period has been Jon Huntsman, who has been flirting with double digits since he devoted himself exclusively to the state late last year. But Huntsman is still barely over that threshold.

Also rising somewhat is Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who virtually tied for the title in Iowa's caucuses last week. But Santorum's surge seemed to peak in the first blush of that success, and over the weekend the energy may have ebbed.

As a result, Santorum is running not with Romney or Paul but with Huntsman and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has been the wild card in the debates and a free radical in the primary equation. Having roughed up Romney in Sunday's NBC-TV debate ("cut thepious baloney"), Gingrich on Monday trained his fire on Santorum.

It seems that any effort Santorum and Gingrich had tried to make at a coordinated attack on Romney has come to an abrupt halt. Now that Santorum is losing altitude again, Gingrich may see an opportunity to get back in the hunt when it moves to South Carolina later this week.

Santorum arrived here with more fanfare than he enjoyed in all of 2011. His campaign was suddenly collecting millions of dollars and getting national attention. That sort of momentum may return in South Carolina, but it found a wall of resistance in New England, where evangelicals are less than half as common in the religious census as they are in Iowa.

All but forgotten at this point is Rick Perry, the Texas governor who entered the field in August, dominated it for a month and then seemingly disappeared after disastrous showings in debates. Perry has already left New Hampshire to his rivals, preferring to push his remaining chips onto South Carolina, the first state to vote in the South.

The problem for Santorum is that South Carolina is also where rivals Paul, Gingrich and Perry all expect to revive their fortunes. So the Romney camp should be able to count on their opponents chewing on each other for the next 10 days and then dividing the anti-Romney vote five ways.

That is exactly how South Carolina wound up delivering a crucial victory to John McCain in 2008. McCain got only about a third of the Republican total there four years ago, fewer actual votes than when he lost to George W. Bush there in 2000. But it was enough for McCain to win, because the rest of the votes were divided among Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and other Republican hopefuls — including Romney.

After winning in South Carolina, McCain cruised to victory in Florida and the nomination fight was over. A similar dynamic could well be developing in the New Hampshire and through the rest of the month.

Which is why Mount Romney looks so serene in the unseasonably moderate weather in New Hampshire this week.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for