Paul Greenberg

If there was anything new out of New Hampshire, it is this: Here we are, not just early in this presidential election year but early in January, and already the traditionally combative race among contenders for the GOP's presidential nomination seems to be jelling. That's almost unheard of.

For a GOP presidential candidate other than a sitting president to carry both the Iowa caucuses (if only by eight votes) and then sweep to victory in New Hampshire and be poised to do well in South Carolina ... that hasn't happened in decades. Since the 1970s maybe, when a hapless Gerald Ford inherited the party's nomination almost by default.

But it's happening now. Can it be? Republicans uniting behind one candidate this early? Are they feeling all right? This isn't normal: Can the party that's made squabbling a quadrennial tradition when it's out of power be coming together after only a presidential primary or two? Surely not.

But if Mitt Romney goes on to win South Carolina's primary, he'll have scored a trifecta. It may consist of only a few primary victories, but a little momentum goes a dramatically long way in American politics, like a small pebble starting a great landslide.

It's called the bandwagon effect. Soon everybody -- old rivals, office-seekers, idealists and opportunists -- wants on. Ambition doth make opportunists of us all.

According to this year's conventional unwisdom, Mitt Romney was always going to be stuck at the 23 percent he consistently gets in polls of Republican voters. Yet he captured almost 40 percent of the votes in New Hampshire's GOP primary against a wide variety of opponents.

What happened? When it comes to the support he can attract, could that 23 percent have been his floor, not his ceiling? And is that a bandwagon gathering momentum just over the horizon?

At this point, candidates like Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich are doing their best to anticipate Barack Obama's attack on the Republican candidate in November. They've rolled out the worst of charges: He's a . . . a capitalist!

Worse, he seems to have made money at it. Lots of it. Disgraceful. These newly aroused critics of his sounded shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that the capitalism they ordinarily praise turns out to be, in Joseph Schumpeter's phrase, a dynamic system of "creative destruction" in which nothing but change is certain.

Much like Barack Obama, the Gingriches and Perrys now seem to prefer a nice, static economy in which everybody gets an entitlement and lives happily ever after, but which in reality means a stagnating one that steadily strangles opportunity and upward mobility that comes with it.

Politics makes strange turnarounds for these erstwhile defenders of the free-enterprise system. If they can paint Mitt Romney as some kind of malevolent Daddy Warbucks, a conniving old Mr. Potter in Bedford Falls, they'll have done Barack Obama's work for him.

But that won't be easy. Mitt Romney can claim to be the candidate of economic growth, of job creation instead of destruction, and he's got a track record that all can see and debate. Instead, his more vocal opponents -- Messrs. Perry and Gingrich at this point -- are just hurling epithets. ("Vulture Capitalist!")

In their own way they're doing the front-runner a service; by the time they're through with Mitt Romney, if he can survive all their slings and arrows, Mr. Obama's tack in the fall won't come as a surprise, just a repeat. The oldest card in the political deck, class envy, will already have been played.

Here's a telling question for Mitt Romney's rivals in the GOP: Can there be any doubt which Republican the White House would like least like to face in the fall?

Give the party in power a Ron Paul, a Newt Gingrich, a Rick Perry to run against, and the way is cleared for this president's re-election. Instead, the Republicans, not to mention independents and Democrats, as in New Hampshire, could begin to solidify behind a new Wendell Willkie, a candidate from the private sector instead of one more pushover, a Hoover or Landon. That is, a Mitt Romney. And he's beginning, if only beginning, to look unsinkable.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.