New Hampshire 2012: The graveyard of RINOs?

Speculative fun from the Boston Phoenix. All along I’ve been assuming that Iowa would be the de facto social con primary (or rather, caucus) and New Hampshire the de facto centrist primary, with the winners to meet down the road in South Carolina, Nevada, and Florida. But what if New Hampshire’s now a lot redder than we think? What if the Iowa winner rolls into Concord a week or two later with tea partiers ready to rock and blows the centrist frontrunner out of the water? That would all but decide the nomination; it’s hard to imagine any candidate winning the big two early and then fumbling on the way to the end zone.

Is this where Mitt says goodbye?

New Hampshire has just gone through one of the most remarkable political upheavals of its history, completely reshaping the landscape there.

The result, according to political observers in the state, is a power vacuum in the state’s Republican circles, right on the eve of the presidential nomination battle. Or, from the perspective of a Republican presidential wannabe, a slew of total unknowns whose opinion could make or break you…

New Hampshire Tea Partiers, in the afterglow of their 2010 success, are already looking for a conservative, populist candidate, says Andrew Hemingway, chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus, which endorsed more than 100 of the new Republican House members. “There’s already been a shift in attention toward the presidential contest” among those activists, Hemingway says.

The state’s establishment Republicans, on the other hand, will be looking for a more mainstream, electable candidate — one they hope will benefit from the large number of independents expected to vote in the Republican primary, with Obama’s re-nomination a foregone conclusion…

Of course, Pindell, Arlinghaus, and others acknowledge another possibility: that this cycle will reveal that none of New Hampshire’s Republican influencers matter at all. The truth could be that New Hampshire’s Republicans get their news and opinions from distant sources — primarily Fox News, talk radio, and national Web sites like NewsMax and RedState.

In other words, it’s Delaware all over again. Romney, shrewdly, is already trying to woo at least one of the state’s new tea party powerbrokers ahead of 2012. Dave Weigel noted today that he dropped a $5,000 contribution on grassroots fave Ovide Lamontagne three weeks after Lamontagne lost the Senate primary to Kelly Ayotte. Lamontagne was backed by DeMint; Ayotte, of course, was supported by Palin. (Lamontagne himself backed Romney for president in 2007, so there was an element of backscratching to that contribution too.) Obviously, Mitt’s trying to prevent an “establishment vs. grassroots” Castle/O’Donnell dynamic from developing in the state; if that happens and this becomes a test of enthusiasm between centrists and “true conservative” backers of the Iowa winner, he’s in big trouble. In fact, he’s in big trouble regardless since other centrist types like Daniels and Pawlenty will be looking at New Hampshire as do or die for them and will campaign hard there, potentially drawing off key votes from Romney. With the centrists split, a strong “true conservative” candidate like Palin or Pence would stand a fair chance of pulling the upset with the base unified behind them. Exit question: After all the time we’ve spent gaming out the primaries and all the time we’re yet to spend gaming them out even more obsessively, is this race actually going to be over early?