After New Hampshire, Romney retains his most precious asset
The best news for Mitt Romney in New Hampshire's presidential primary Tuesday wasn't the number of votes he won. It was the number of his opponents who stayed in the race.
Romney's vote was just about what most polls predicted, about 39%. That gave him a big margin over second-place Ron Paul, who won about 23%, and third-place Jon Huntsman Jr., who won about 17%. Romney even came in first among voters who described themselves as "very conservative," according to the exit poll. He didn't top the 40% that once looked possible, but it was a strong showing nonetheless.
Even better for the former Massachusetts governor, though, was the peculiar effect of the New Hampshire vote on the rest of the field: They all saw reasons to stay in the race.
Paul said he was "nibbling at his [Romney's] heels." Huntsman called his third-place showing "a ticket to ride." Rick Santorum, who finished fourth, cried: "On to South Carolina!" Newt Gingrich, who limped in fifth, said he was confident that his message would sell in the South -- as did Rick Perry, who didn't compete in New Hampshire at all. None of them dropped out.
So Romney retains his most precious asset: the fragmentation of his opponents. As long as Paul, Huntsman, Santorum, Gingrich and Perry continue to divide the not-Romney vote five ways, the Republican race can end only one way: with Mitt Romney's nomination.
Victorious Mitt Romney warns against 'bitter politics of envy'
--Doyle McManus, writing from Manchester, N.H.
Photo: Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney celebrate as his victory in the New Hampshire primary is declared in Manchester. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press