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Diverging Objectives in N.H. for G.O.P. Candidates

MANCHESTER, N.H. — What you saw at the debate here at Saint Anselm College Saturday night was a set of candidates with differing strategic objectives. The candidates with the simplest objectives tended to have the better performance.

Jon M. Huntsman Jr. has a simple objective: perform as well as possible in New Hampshire, the state in which he has spent virtually all of his time and resources, and then see what happens next. Thirty-seven percent of the voters in the 2008 New Hampshire Republican primary were independents, and that might be higher this year without a competitive Democratic contest. I don’t know that speaking Mandarin will do Mr. Huntsman much good with these voters. But some of the policies he advanced, like civil unions, Bowles-Simpson and a more circumscribed role for American armed forces, are in line with how New Hampshire independents think.

Mitt Romney also has a simple objective: show Republicans why they ought to be happy to have him as their nominee. Mr. Romney accomplished that by focusing virtually all of his time and attention on President Obama, and was frequently quite eloquent in doing so.

Representative Ron Paul’s objective is perhaps the simplest of all: keep his base happy. That is what has worked for Mr. Paul so far, while efforts to greatly expand his coalition are likely to be futile at this stage. Mr. Paul’s worst moments came when he deviated from this strategy to attack Rick Santorum, something that (by Mr. Paul’s standards) seemed oddly motivated by tactical, horse-race concerns. Still, Mr. Paul had some highlights, like in his response to Newt Gingrich about having served in the armed forces, and he didn’t do or say anything that should prevent him from getting an enthusiastic 20 percent of the vote in New Hampshire.

Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich, however, have complicated objectives. On the one hand, they would like to perform as well as possible in New Hampshire. On the other hand, their reason for doing this is to gather as much momentum as possible heading into South Carolina, which has significantly different values and demographics.

Meanwhile, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich are competing against each other for second and third place in New Hampshire. But they are also competing against Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Paul, who are at least as likely to perform well here. And in the long run, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich need to beat Mr. Romney for the nomination.

It can be easy to neglect Mr. Romney in New Hampshire, oddly enough, because he is so far ahead in the polls.

What I thought resulted for Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich was close to the worst of all possible strategic worlds. Neither candidate did much, either substantively or stylistically, to appeal to New Hampshire voters. But both spent only brief amounts of time attacking Mr. Romney, their biggest long-term problem.

The result might push us toward a situation in which Mr. Paul and Mr. Huntsman take second and third place in New Hampshire in some order, with Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich both performing disappointingly. If neither Mr. Santorum nor Mr. Gingrich perform well in New Hampshire, it is hard to see how they will have favorable momentum in South Carolina, where they already trail Mr. Romney.

Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Paul, meanwhile, are probably too far back in South Carolina to be much of a threat to Mr. Romney there, even with favorable momentum heading into the state.

The end result could be a reasonably clear victory for Mr. Romney in South Carolina, at which point he would be well on his way to the nomination.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.