Newt, the Expectation-Setter

PLYMOUTH, N.H. – The bane of the horse race reporter is the local issue. In Plymouth, residents (and visitors from nearby towns) kept talking about the northern pass energy project, which – in the nightmare scenario – would run energy polls through the landscape. Mike Marino, a New Hampshire transplant from Long Island, told me he’d be unable to choose a candidate until he declared a pipeline position. Newt Gingrich delivered, albeit only after most real humans had left and a pack of reporters wanted to grill him. The Gingrich position: Do it, bury the ugly infrastructure.

“What I’ve learned is that the cost is not prohibitive,” he explained. “Maine is proving it can be done. It means everybody’s interest – you get energy down here so Quebec’s happy, Maine’s happy, and you do it without damaging the landscape, the tourism industry.”

A national reporter started to ask if this was a pander. “I didn’t talk about the northern pass in Iowa!” scoffed Gingrich. “You talk in each issue about the issues that matter in that state!” Anyway, mission accomplished: Gingrich had taken the local position on an issue that rural New Hampshire is vetting. He beamed (you notice, because a full-on Gingrich smile is rarer than a panda orgy) when the Union Leader followed up.

Enough of that: Back to the horse race! Gingrich had briefly surged to 2nd place in New Hampshire (or to a tie for 2nd with Ron Paul.) He was falling again. What did he need to do?

Well, not beat Mitt Romney. That was obvious.

“This is probably one of his two strongest states,” said Gingrich. “Let’s see if he can get a majority here.”

Nice goalpost-planting, there, because there are seven real candidates on the ballot (I’m ready to risk angry comments from Fred Karger fans) here, of whom six are campaigning hard (Gingrich, Romney, Huntsman, Paul, Roemer, Santorum). Romney polls persistently in the high 30s or low 40s. It’s very possible to see a Santorum boomlet that takes him to the high teens, past Gingrich and Huntsman, so Gingrich was making the old-new news that he won’t quit when he comes in the middle or back of the pack. Let Santorum surge: He’s going to figure out local issues, get the positive coverage, and keep defining Santorum as a poor man’s Newt.