No matter what happens in Iowa tonight, Mitt Romney has a safety net in New Hampshire.
And that could rank as the year's most perilous sentence. Why shouldn't Romney be surprised in the state that temporarily derailed Barack Obama's supposedly rapid march toward nomination four years ago? Hillary Clinton humbled many a pundit here in 2008, reason enough to challenge the rapidly jelling conventional wisdom about the Republican presidential campaign.
In just a few weeks, Romney has been transformed from an embattled and weak front-runner into the real thing. He has a chance of winning the Iowa caucuses as his dazed opponents scratch at each other trying to emerge as the leading non-Romney. Libertarian Ron Paul, who will never be nominated, now looks to be Romney's main competition in Iowa. Paul is doing a fine job as Romney's blocking back, preventing anyone else from emerging early enough to give Romney a stiff race.
The key to wrapping up a nomination quickly has always been an Iowa-New Hampshire one-two punch, and the Granite State, which votes a week from today, seems to be a Romney fortress. "I don't see anyone challenging Romney for the win," said Fergus Cullen, the former New Hampshire state Republican chairman, referring to his state. "Second place," he adds, "is still wide open," a consolation only if Romney heads toward the GOP's Southern contests weaker than he looks now.
Steve Duprey, the Republican national committeeman who, like Cullen, is neutral (though Susan Duprey, his politically influential wife, is a close adviser to Romney's wife Ann), sees Romney and Paul as having the strongest New Hampshire organizations -- precisely what Iowa Republicans say about ground strength in their state. By contrast, he says, Newt Gingrich has little going on organizationally. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has "a great professional organization," Steve Duprey said, but also a core problem: "He started running as a moderate and now he's saying he's a conservative. That's confusing." Indeed, Huntsman, who is skipping Iowa, now wants to become the conservative alternative to Romney and Gingrich. Hoping that repetition is persuasive, Huntsman's television and print ads here tout him as "a conservative hero in this race," "more conservative than Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney combined," and the author of "the most conservative" program. Pulling together moderate independents and dissatisfied conservatives is the magic Huntsman is betting on.
If everything seems to be going Romney's way, here is a word of caution from an unexpected source. Former Gov. John Sununu is one of Romney's staunchest supporters in the state, but also a tested veteran of many a New Hampshire primary. "People have to understand that primary races are extremely volatile because all the candidates are expressing more or less the same philosophy," this professor of realpolitik explained to me. So what could possibly upend Romney? There are two debates scheduled for the weekend before the voting here. They present Romney with an opportunity to wrap things up -- and a minefield of potential troubles. Or Iowa could anoint a new conservative alternative to Romney: A Rick Santorum surge or a Rick Perry comeback could create a new one-on-one dynamic here. Or Romney could simply fall far short of what are now soaring expectations in Iowa.
Still, what's most astounding is that a Republican contest characterized all year by melodrama and comedy now seems headed toward the most conventional and predictable conclusion possible. It's hard to believe things will really end this way. The biggest upset would be no upset at all.