Clouds gather over Romney in New Hampshire

We’re about six weeks away from the New Hampshire primary and already the Republican race may be shaping up to surprise even the most astute observer. The Manchester Union Leader has endorsed Newt Gingrich over the frontrunner and part-time New Hampshire resident Mitt Romney. This is all the more surprising when you consider Gingrich’s campaign was on life support just a few weeks ago. Gingrich also leads in the latest poll out of Iowa, a state known for its social conservative bias.

I have been on the ground in New Hampshire for the last three primary seasons and for the 2004 presidential election. New Hampshire should not be taken lightly when the game is about performing against expectations. The expectation is that Romney must win big or else his campaign could lose the needed momentum for South Carolina and Florida, and therefore end up in serious trouble.

A big defeat in Iowa to Gingrich will have an immediate effect on New Hampshire. This is what happened in 2008, when Mike Huckabee won an upset in Iowa, and John McCain took New Hampshire a few days later over Romney.

The expectation this year is that Romney will win New Hampshire, but he must win big. Jon Hunstman is staking his whole campaign on New Hampshire and is campaigning hard, while Gingrich is now a serious challenger. A close victory by Romney could be interpreted as a loss. The question, then, would be whether Romney can rebound from the disappointment in New Hampshire and protect his frontrunner status.

Romney has the organization and the money, and he has been the frontrunner since he declared last spring. The pretenders have already started falling by the wayside. Moreover, past experience shows Gingrich is prone to imploding. Plus, Romney scores well in national polls against President Obama and that will count down the road .

I still believe the GOP nomination is Romney’s to lose. Yet, the Union Leader‘s apparent affection for Gingrich has to be bad news. The Republican party no longer uses the winner-takes-all approach, making it possible for Gingrich to be there for the long haul should he do well in Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney did not fare well in the last debate and Gingrich, by contrast, has shown himself to be a formidable debater. Expect the challengers to start ramping up their attacks on Romney’s reputation for changing policy positions. Until now, he has had it easy.

Is Gingrich the real thing, the real anti-Romney alternative? It is too early to tell, but this endorsement in New Hampshire shows that the upcoming presidential race could include some surprises. The first one might come as early as January 2012.

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