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Mitt Romney emerges from New Hampshire stronger yet battered

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Mitt Romney’s strong New Hampshire showing puts him on a clear pathway to the Republican presidential nomination and suggests he could wrap the contest up soon — maybe even before the month is over.

But in staking Tuesday’s sizable primary win, Romney endured the roughest week of his campaign and highlighted some of the weaknesses — a tin ear, perceived double talk, a target-rich background as a venture capitalist — that could haunt him in the fall campaign against President Obama.

Paradoxically, Romney in some ways looks worse off after his 16-percentage-point New Hampshire win than he did a week ago, after squeaking to victory by just eight votes in Iowa.

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That is because the race for president must now be considered on two tracks: the fight for the GOP nomination, and the way that struggle affects the larger effort to oust Obama in November, assuming Romney becomes the nominee.

The two tracks converged again Wednesday in South Carolina, where candidates trailing Romney, seeking survival in a state less sympathetic to him than New Hampshire, continued to pummel the front-runner.

Romney’s statements while campaigning in New Hampshire — that he has known the fear of facing a pink slip, that he likes “to be able to fire people” — did nothing to slow him down in a state that was always his to lose. (The latter remark was taken out of context from a lengthier comment about insurance companies providing adequate service.)

But one statement strained credulity and the other, fairly or not, played into an image that the well-off Romney has worked hard to dispel: of an unfeeling corporate bean-counter and financial whiz who made his fortune by putting profits ahead of people. The caricature is one the Obama campaign has been eager to promote — a fundraising email sent Wednesday had the subject line “He likes to fire people” — even before the Democrats received assistance from several of Romney’s GOP challengers.

For that reason alone the former Massachusetts governor would love to end the nominating fight, so he can start focusing solely on the general election. To the extent New Hampshire hastened that prospect, the results were an unqualified triumph.

After losing the state four years ago, on Tuesday night Romney won a solid 39% of the vote in a six-man field and delivered a strong victory speech that laid out the case against the president with particular clarity and force. Romney recalled Obama campaigning four years ago across New Hampshire.

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“He promised to bring people together,” Romney said. “He promised to change the broken system in Washington. He promised to improve our nation. Those were the days of lofty promises made by a hopeful candidate. Today, we are faced with the disappointing record of a failed president. The last three years have held a lot of change, but they haven’t offered much hope.”

Romney sent a fresh signal to his GOP rivals and their backers Wednesday that resistance was futile by announcing an impressive $25-million cash haul in the latest fundraising quarter and, more important, that he had $19 million to spend as the race spreads across the country. No other candidate comes close.

New Hampshire also boosted Romney by stalling any momentum the Iowa runner-up, Rick Santorum, hoped to gain before the next vote, Jan. 21 in South Carolina. The former Pennsylvania senator finished a distant fifth in New Hampshire.

The candidates who finished second and third, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., are especially weak in South Carolina, where their libertarian and leftward tilts, respectively, are far afield of sentiments in one of the most conservative states in the country.

Also in the mix are the fourth-place finisher, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the candidate who came in last, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who speaks the language of the tea party movement and is making what may be a last stand in South Carolina.

The fact that so many candidates remain in the race means they will inevitably carve up the vote, giving a Romney a good shot at carrying South Carolina after finishing fourth in 2008. A win could make him unstoppable in Florida’s primary 10 days later, effectively ending the contest by Feb. 1.

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Romney drew a loud cheer during his victory speech Tuesday night when he chided fellow Republicans for sounding like Democrats waging class warfare. He elaborated Wednesday morning on NBC’s “Today” show.

“It’s something that we expected to come from President Obama, but we didn’t expect that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry would become the witnesses ... if you will,” Romney said, adding, “I don’t think it’s helped them.” He suggested that the New Hampshire results were proof that the issue had failed to resonate.

But that ignores some recent political history.

In 1988, it was a Democrat, Al Gore, who first raised the issue of weekend furloughs for convicted killers, which eventually helped destroy the presidential hopes of another former Massachusetts governor, Democrat Michael Dukakis. The subject came up during a debate ahead of New York’s Democratic primary; it did Gore little good — he lost badly — and it did nothing to stop Dukakis from winning the Democratic nomination.

In the fall, however, Republicans seized on the horrific case of Willie Horton, a convict in Massachusetts who had raped a woman and stabbed and pistol-whipped her boyfriend while on weekend release, and used it to devastating effect against Dukakis.

Issues that partisans shrug off in a primary often play differently in a general election. New Hampshire gave Romney a huge boost toward winning the GOP nomination, and doing so swiftly. But it also highlighted several of the obstacles he must overcome if Romney and his fellow Republicans expect to defeat Obama in the fall.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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