NASHUA, N.H. -- What does it say that in the critical final days before the New Hampshire presidential primary, half the Republican field, including the front-runner, took time out to visit South Carolina?
It says that, for this year at least, the storied New Hampshire primary is not where the political action is. Polls show Mitt Romney far ahead of the field, and even if Romney has slipped a bit in the last few days, no one here believes he has even the slightest chance of losing. Unlike the Iowa caucuses, in which the outcome was in doubt until the very end -- actually still is in doubt, given the virtual tie between Romney and Rick Santorum -- there's no suspense about the winner in the New Hampshire race.
That's why Romney and Santorum each spent a day campaigning in South Carolina in the last week, joining Rick Perry, who looked at his less-than-zero chances in New Hampshire and headed straight from Iowa to the Palmetto State.
What's left in New Hampshire? An expectations game for Romney and a fight for second place.
As far as expectations are concerned, it's hard to see Romney emerging from New Hampshire in anything resembling serious trouble. While he has been campaigning here, his poll numbers in South Carolina, and even in Florida, have been steadily rising. A recent Rasmussen survey of South Carolina showed Romney, who was back in the pack not too long ago, in the lead, slightly ahead of Santorum, and farther ahead of former South Carolina front-runner Newt Gingrich. A CNN-Time poll showed Romney with a more substantial lead in the Palmetto State.
And second place in New Hampshire? There could be a fight between Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman over the runner-up spot, or there could be a fight between Paul and Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. Or perhaps the contest will be between Huntsman, Santorum and Gingrich for third place. In any event, it's just not the big battle for the big prize.
The fact is, for a Republican presidential candidate, the South is the big prize. It is the rock-solid base of the Republican Party, and a candidate has to do well there to grab the nomination.
In this race, New Hampshire is serving as off-Broadway for South Carolina. Much of the talk here has been of a new video attacking Romney's business record, produced by a pro-Gingrich super PAC. But so far all the commotion has been about a three-minute preview released by the PAC; the full-length video will debut in South Carolina.
Talk to top New Hampshire Republican political figures, and they'll defend their primary at least in part because it helps set the stage for South Carolina. "If you look at the history of the Republican primary, the South Carolina winner has traditionally won either Iowa or New Hampshire," says Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte. "You do get a bump in South Carolina when you win the New Hampshire primary. Look what happened with John McCain in 2008. He beat Mitt Romney here, he was behind in the polls in South Carolina, and after he won in New Hampshire, he overtook Romney in South Carolina because he got a bump here."
Three GOP candidates -- Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann -- dropped out of the race either before or immediately after the Iowa caucuses. Will any call it quits after New Hampshire?
Jon Huntsman is the most likely dropout, but he appears to be moving up a little here and might come out of New Hampshire with a boost. On the other hand, he's dead last in South Carolina and appears to have no chance to rise.
On the other hand, the most important thing to have in this Republican race is an invitation to the next debate. In South Carolina, that will be January 16 in Myrtle Beach, and there's a chance we'll see the same, un-winnowed field there that we saw in New Hampshire.
And they'll have more time to campaign. The New Hampshire contest came exactly one week after the Iowa caucuses, but there will be 11 days between New Hampshire and South Carolina's voting on January 21. That's time for things to change.
So this year it appears New Hampshire is more a traditional stop through which the campaign had to run rather than a decisive contest. That comes later. "I believe that we're the one that picks the nominee," says South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly. "Whoever wins here, wins the thing."
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.