Huntsmentum: Rasmussen now has Huntsman in double digits in New Hampshire

Dude, it’s happening.

What a difference a month makes in the race for the Republican nomination. In September, Rick Perry was leading in Iowa and running second in New Hampshire. In October, Herman Cain took the lead in Iowa and was running second in New Hampshire. Now, it’s Newt Gingrich’s turn.

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Republican Primary voters in New Hampshire shows former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on top at 34%, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 24%. This is the first survey of New Hampshire Primary voters conducted since the Manchester Union Leader endorsed Gingrich.

Huntsman’s in fourth with 11 percent, three points behind Ron Paul. That’s his best poll of the campaign, and doubly noteworthy since it’s a poll of likely voters. His strategy’s always been straightforward: Turn New Hampshire into a two-man race with Romney and then count on the silent “Not Romney” supermajority to sweep him to victory. Two problems with that, though. First, according to Rasmussen’s crosstabs, voters overwhelmingly see Romney as more qualified to be president than Huntsman. Mitt’s split is 79/13 on that question, Huntsman’s is 46/36. I have no idea why — Huntsman served as governor as long as Romney did and has ambassadorial experience to boot — but it is what it is. If it did come to the two of them, Romney would have a huge electability advantage on that point. Second, unlike with Perry, Bachmann, and Cain, there’s no reason to think Gingrich is going away. A catastrophic debate gaffe is unthinkable; a catastrophic personal scandal is more likely but would still be surprising. The sense I get from Newt (and I don’t think I’m alone) is that the big skeletons are already out of the closet and on display because, really, at this point how could they not be? In fact, in an odd way Cain’s difficulties make me more comfortable with Gingrich because at least his peccadilloes are already priced into his stock. So much so, in fact, that I think it’s inured him to some extent against new charges like the reports of him doing de facto lobbying for Bush’s Medicare drug prescription bill. We already know he’s (a) smart and experienced, (b) not Romney, and (c) capable of cringeworthy personal and ideological sins. What’s one more at this point? Coming soon: “Did you know Newt once swiped a lollipop from a toddler and gave it to one of his think-tank clients?” “Yeah, he does that sometimes.” Shrug.

But back to Huntsman. The smaller the field gets, the closer he gets to realizing his strategy, which explains why he’s nudging Cain to drop out this afternoon. He’s also refusing to flatly rule out a third-party run if he flames out in New Hampshire, a prospect that sounds ominous but might not be. If you eyeball the crosstabs to Rasmussen’s poll, it turns out that among Republicans Huntsman’s polling just six percent compared to 38 percent for Romney and 28 percent for Gingrich. Among “others,” though, he’s at 18 percent. (Romney leads in that category too with 29 percent.) Which is to say, would Huntsman running as a “No Labels” independent pull more indies from Obama or more from Romney? If you’re a right-leaning independent who wants O out, you hold your nose and vote for Mitt, secure in the knowledge that he and Huntsman aren’t that different. If you’re a left-leaning independent who’s tired of O, you’ve now got two ways to register your protest vote: If Romney irritates you too much to pull the trigger for him, hey, you’ve got the media’s favorite “reasonable” Republican instead. Logically Huntsman should hurt Romney more, but I think the amount of damage he’d do is negligible given his centrist appeal compared to the damage Ron Paul would do pulling tea partiers away from Romney’s base on the right. Something to keep an eye on.