Paul Steinhauser: NH real winner from Romney exit
CONCORD - GOP strategists in the Granite State agree: With Mitt Romney bowing out of the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, the primary's now wide open!
"It makes New Hampshire much more competitive, it's no longer ‘we'll write it off to Romney'," longtime GOP consultant Steve Duprey told NH1.
Romney's extremely well known in New Hampshire. He owns a vacation home along Lake Winnipesaukee, was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, campaigned for himself in the Granite State in the 2008 and 2012 presidential cycles, and stumped for Republican candidates in New Hampshire in the 2010 and 2014 midterms.
If Romney had run, he would have been considered the front runner for the first-in-the-nation primary. A NH1 Pulse Poll conducted last week of those likely to vote in next year's primary indicated Romney with 29% support, far ahead of the rest of the field of other potential GOP White House contenders.
"It does make New Hampshire more important and more open, and that's good for New Hampshire and our voters," added Duprey, a former state GOP chairman and current committeeman to the Republican National Committee.
Dave Carney agrees.
"It probably makes the New Hampshire primary all the more important, simply because Gov. Romney has a house here, he's considered a part-time resident. He campaigned here in 2008, won in 2012, and I think a lot of candidates might have thought it would be tough to overcome his advantages," said Carney, a veteran Republican consultant who was a longtime adviser to then-Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
"Now with him out of the race it means it's completely wide open and great for our field of 18 or 19 potential candidates," Carney added.
Tom Rath, a longtime GOP consultant and senior Romney adviser, says the news makes New Hampshire more relevant than ever.
"I think New Hampshire is now, without question, where you must begin. Some of the sort of centrist candidates maybe can take a pass on Iowa, because it tends to run right. But New Hampshire, that looks and feels acts just like a general election, has got to be where you start. It's got to be where a candidate proves that they have the capacity to run in a way that appeals to the entire electorate," Rath told NH1.
Top aides and activists free to roam
Romney's announcement came three weeks to the day after he told top aides, donors, and other supports who were gathered in New York City, that he was seriously considering a third run for the White House.
Two weeks ago he gave a campaign-style speech to GOP officials who were gathered in San Diego for the RNC's annual winter meeting. And on Wednesday in a speech at Mississippi State University, Romney sounded very much like a candidate as he criticized President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who's all but certain to run again for the Democratic nomination.
But there was skepticism and push back against Romney from some quarters of the GOP, with many critical of his trial balloon.
In his announcement Friday, on a conference call with leading advisers, staff, and donors, Romney gave the green light for those in his camp to start shopping around.
"I encourage all of you on this call to stay engaged in the critical process of selecting a Republican nominee for President. Please feel free to sign up on a campaign for a person who you believe may become our best nominee," Romney said.
And that's already happening. NH1 learned that some leading New Hampshire based Romney advisers were quickly contacted by other potential contenders in the minutes after Romney's stunning news.
"I think it helps almost every candidate because Gov. Romney had such a large financial backing and developed organization in New Hampshire. Those resources are all free to now migrate to different camps. So potentially it helps everyone else in the race,' Carney said.
"It really helps activists. You already had a deep reservoir of support and good feelings with a lot of folks who would have been troubled to make a decision. Now they're basically free agents. They'll have the opportunity, the luxury to go out, shop around and pick a new candidate. I think that feeds a lot of energy," Duprey added.
One of those activists is Jim Merrill, an experienced Manchester based GOP consultant who was a top adviser to Romney's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
"The Romney coalition that we built for eight years, and that got 40% of the vote in 2012 is now today, looking at other candidates," Merrill told NH1.
Who benefits from Romney's exit
With Romney out of the race, all four strategists feel that fellow center-right establishment contenders may benefit the most.
"I think it helps the people who are in the center-right cluster. That would be Gov. Bush, Gov. Christie. And I think it may help Gov. Walker," Rath said.
"I think in some ways his departure doesn't help people who are running to the right too much, because their race is still amongst themselves and he didn't' take much from there. The way to win this primary tends to be to run center-right and he had a big chunk of that electorate. That's what's in play."
"It probably helps the more ‘establishment' candidates," Duprey said. "It basically it opens up a to a lot of people the freedom go and actively solicit and seek out who they want to support and it will make New Hampshire more exciting."
"I think if possible, it may help some of the candidates who are what I call the mainstream conservative end of our party, rather than the more conservative end, but you never know," Carney added.
"There's no heir apparent. There's no front runner. And I think Gov. Romney's exit immediately benefits people like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, to name four. But I think that any candidate that decides to spend time and campaign in New Hampshire will get a fair and honest hearing from our voters," Merrill said.
Independents play a big role in New Hampshire's primary, as they and other undeclared voters can cast a ballot in either party's contest. And with a Democratic nomination that as of now appears to be Hillary Clinton's for the taking, they could be a big factor in the GOP primary.
Rath suggested that with Romney out of the race, that would help the other center-right candidates.
"Especially if the Democratic race stays the way it appear to be now, which is primarily a coronation for Sec. Clinton, that that means that more independents are going to take Republican ballots, and the more independents who vote in the Republican primary, the more it orients the primary not to the right pole, but more to the center," Rath said.