Paul Greenberg

There were no surprises in the New Hampshire presidential primary. The voting results followed expectations and the polls. Win, place and show -- Romney, Paul and Huntsman -- were all predictable, even for a notoriously unpredictable thing like an American election.

Mitt Romney came in ahead of the pack, way ahead. He even overcame the most formidable opponent a candidate for his party's presidential nomination can have: expectations.

Ron Paul's core of true believers (every political party's got 'em, the way every denomination has got its hard-shell devotees) came out in force to give the country doctor second place. Not bad.

Second place is about as high as a long-time ideologue can hope for in a system that puts practice above theory, results before obsessions. Which is the genius of the American system and the key to its remarkable continuity (with the unfortunate exception of that unpleasantness in 1861-65).

Hard times are the health of fleeting figures on the American scene like Dr. Paul, and this is his 15 minutes, or rather 15 months, of fame. There have been worse times (the Great Depression) and worse radicals (Huey Long) than the good doctor. He's an honorable man with, unfortunately, a few fixations, maybe more than a few, at the center of his politics.

Ron Paul is a familiar enough type -- populist, money crank, isolationist -- who makes regular appearances in the America drama, an outlier who can be almost charming as long as he remains an outlier, an eccentric actor in the wonderful world of American public opinion rather than someone shaping it.

If there was a surprise in the final count out of New Hampshire, it was Jon Huntsman's poor showing in a state custom-made for his kind of appeal to the vague middle -- a Republican primary that was open to independents and Democrats, too. A state in which he'd invested most of his time, energy and resources in this campaign. To no great avail.

Mr. Huntsman called his third-place showing "a ticket to ride" on to the next primary, South Carolina's later this month. Indeed it is -- if his definition of success for an American presidential candidate is coming in third.

The only real question raised by the results in New Hampshire is why Jon Huntsman is still in this race. To block the other anti-Romneys and generally clutter up this year's presidential race? At this point it's hard to see any other point to his staying in technical contention.

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.