GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney may have scored a "decisive" win in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, but the 23 percent of the vote bagged by his nearest rival, libertarian Ron Paul, is nothing to scoff at. Once deemed a long shot, Paul eclipsed Jon Huntsman, who bet his candidacy on New Hampshire, and won more votes than Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry combined. Now that it's beginning to look like a two-person race between Romney and Paul, Romney's campaign is reportedly "thrilled" that the divisive libertarian is its top competition. But should Romney be so jazzed?
This really helps Mitt: "Ron Paul's silver medal is a godsend for Romney," says Will Wilkinson at The Economist. Had Huntsman catapulted from the back of the pack to finish in the top two, "the media would have made a big deal of his coming in second, creating a sense of momentum [in] his campaign." Paul's second-place finish, on the other hand, was all but expected, and won't get nearly as much attention as a result. That allows Romney's narrative as the unchallenged front-runner to continue.
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And Paul prevents Romney's rivals from excelling: "Ron Paul is Mitt Romney's best friend," says Aaron Blake at The Washington Post. Santorum and his fellow also-rans are clearly hoping to last long enough to be the last man standing against Romney, and "try to beat him then." The problem, however, is that Paul plans to stay in the race until the convention. That hurts the other candidates, as it fractures the "anti-Romney vote." Paul could continue to win around 10 percent of the vote, making the threshold of victory for Romney in a multi-candidate field much smaller, and preventing Mitt's rivals from consolidating the vote against him.
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Hold on. Paul could win this thing: It's easy to downplay the strength of Paul's performance, arguing that coming in as the runner-up "will be no more meaningful than was Pat Buchanan's actual win here in 1996," says Brian Doherty at Reason. But Paul isn't just meeting expectations, he's surpassing them. Paul has a clear set of ideas and the "widespread ability to inspire energetic and effective activism." Don't be surprised if Tea Party members or those who identify as "true conservatives" fall into line behind him as the field narrows, making Paul a severe threat to Romney's run at the nomination.
"Ron Paul: Amazing night, and the path to a two-man race"
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