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Mitt Romney leads the way to the next GOP battlefield: New Hampshire

A day after his razor-thin victory in the Iowa caucuses, he signals that Republican ranks are closing around his candidacy. Michele Bachmann bows out, and Rick Perry unexpectedly pushes on to South Carolina.

January 04, 2012|By Mark Z. Barabak and Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
  • Michele Bachmann embraces her mother in West Des Moines, Iowa, after announcing the suspension of her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Michele Bachmann embraces her mother in West Des Moines, Iowa, after announcing… (Tannen Maury, EPA )

Reporting from Des Moines and Peterborough, N.H. —  

A shrunken field of GOP presidential hopefuls descended on New Hampshire on Wednesday, the next test in the party's nominating fight, as Mitt Romney sought to bolster his status as front-runner and establishment favorite.

A day after winning the Iowa caucuses by the slimmest margin in history — eight votes — Romney signaled that party ranks were closing and used a morning TV interview to contrast the breadth and strength of his campaign with the hand-to-mouth candidacy of Rick Santorum, Iowa's runner-up.

"Rick has focused his effort, and I think in a wise way, entirely on Iowa," Romney said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "I've been campaigning in other states, putting together the kind of organization which I believe will get me the 1,150 delegates I need."

To the surprise and consternation of some backers, Santorum largely abandoned the campaign trail Wednesday, missing an opportunity to appear on TV and capitalize on his come-from-nowhere showing. The first appearance of the former Pennsylvania senator came Wednesday night at a community forum in Brentwood, N.H., well after national news programs had concluded.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who finished a close third in Iowa, also took the day off.

As the focus of the roller-coaster Republican contest shifted from the farms and small towns of Iowa to the craggy seacoast and hamlets of New Hampshire, the Republican field lost one contestant and unexpectedly retained another.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who finished last among Iowa's six contestants, quit the race. "Last night, the people of Iowa spoke with a very clear voice, and so I have decided to stand aside," Bachmann said at a morning news conference in West Des Moines. She called on Republicans to unify behind the ultimate nominee, but did not say whom she would support.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who the night before seemed prepared to exit after coming in fifth in Iowa, signaled instead that he was staying. In a midmorning tweet that surprised even some advisors, he declared, "Here we come South Carolina!!!"

Perry is expected to participate in a pair of New Hampshire debates this weekend for Tuesday's primary, but a last stand seems more likely to succeed in South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary, with its large evangelical voting bloc.

People close to the campaign said Perry had money in the bank and figured there was still a chance for a comeback, given the coolness that social conservatives have shown toward Romney's candidacy.

The closeness of Romney's Iowa victory diminished the achievement somewhat, though it was hard to tell from the celebration in the Romney camp. After just two hours' sleep, he boarded his chartered Des Moines-to-Manchester flight to hugs and cheers from staffers.

Iowa was never friendly territory for the former Massachusetts governor; New Hampshire is much more suited to him, and not just because he lives there part time. The state's Republicans tend to be fiscally conservative and socially moderate, and independents can vote in the primary as well.

Romney sought a boost Wednesday from Arizona Sen. John McCain, who won the state's primaries in 2000 and 2008. The two, who clashed bitterly as rivals in the 2008 campaign, shared a stage in the gymnasium at Manchester's Central High and later at Peterborough Town Hall.

"I am committed and believe that the United States of America needs Mitt Romney as the next president of the United States of America," McCain said in Peterborough.

A sweep of both Iowa and New Hampshire, where Romney holds a big lead in polls, would be unprecedented for a nonincumbent Republican and make him almost a prohibitive favorite to become the party's nominee.

None of the remaining rivals has anything close to the financial resources of Romney's campaign, an important factor as the race turns toward big states. However, the next stretch of campaigning promises to be urgent and particularly nasty as candidates struggle to survive.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who is staking his candidacy on New Hampshire, sought Wednesday to turn Romney's support from McCain and other Washington insiders into a liability.

"You're going to have a choice this election cycle," Huntsman told a crowd of 60 or so in Manchester. "The establishment is going to tee up Mitt Romney and they're going to say, 'There's your guy.' .... But you know what? This nation can't afford a status quo president."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who once appealed to audiences by insisting that fellow Republicans train their attacks on President Obama, abandoned the strategy after being eviscerated in Iowa by millions of dollars in negative ads.

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