MANCHESTER, N.H. — It's going to be mean and dispiriting, this campaign. We'll be assailed with talk of "European socialism" and "vulture capitalism" -- not "hope" and "change" -- and the months between now and November will seem an eternity.There's no use trying to gainsay or belittle Mitt Romney's victory here Tuesday. Yes, he might have hoped for a bigger turnout. Yes, he would have been happier to win with at least 40 percent of the vote, rather than 39-point-whatever. And yes, given that he's a part-time resident of New Hampshire, he was always expected to dominate the contest.
None of this is likely to matter. Romney is the first non-incumbent Republican to open two-for-two, winning both Iowa and New Hampshire. Exit polls show him with decent support among all the GOP's diverse constituencies -- and no glaring weaknesses. It's true that most Republicans would prefer someone else, but there's no agreement on who that someone else might be. By the time the anti-Romney forces get organized, he'll be giving his acceptance speech.
Rick Santorum, whom Romney beat in the Iowa caucuses by just eight votes, was a non-factor here. He ended up battling Newt Gingrich in a neck-and-neck, down-to-the-wire, photo-finish contest for ... fourth place. Romney got twice as many votes as Santorum and Gingrich combined. Guys, that's no way to take down a front-runner.
Jon Huntsman staked everything on New Hampshire, and by the end of the evening he was able to claim, well, certainly not victory but perhaps survival. He ended up with all of 17 percent. "I'd say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentlemen," he told his supporters. They shouldn't pack for a long journey.
Romney's toughest competitor turned out to be Ron Paul, who's not actually running a campaign but rather a crusade. He used his speech Tuesday night to explain why the Federal Reserve is a nexus of pure evil, why compassionate government is invariably cruel and why virtually all events beyond U.S. borders can be blithely ignored. I know Romney's not the most dazzling campaigner, but I think he can take this guy.
Nobody dropped out of the race, not even poor Rick Perry, who didn't really compete and ended up with less than 1 percent. All the candidates vowed to press on to South Carolina, where they seem determined to split the anti-Romney vote once again, giving the front-runner another easy win.
If the pattern continues, Romney can't lose -- no matter how hard he tries. With his record at the private equity firm Bain Capital already under intense scrutiny, Romney's declaration that "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me" could only have arisen from some kind of political death wish. Yes, he was talking about firing insurance companies, not individual workers. But how couldany sentence containing the phrases "I like" and "fire people" escape his lips?
This will surely be a major line of attack against him if he wins the nomination. Thanks partly to Gingrich, the "vulture" variety of capitalism that Bain practiced -- often involving cost-cutting, downsizing and layoffs -- is now an issue for President Obama to exploit.
Romney's initial reaction to the criticism has been all wrong. He claims that to question Bain's way of doing business is to question free-market capitalism itself. But nothing in free-market theory outlaws compassion or mandates that firings be considered a source of joy.
Four years ago, Mike Huckabee compared himself to Romney by saying that "I want to be a president who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off." At times, Romney still comes off as the bad-news guy from Human Resources.
But he's a much better candidate this time around. And now, as he showed Tuesday night, he has a speech.
Romney's victory address did not soar, but it was hard-hitting and potentially effective. It consisted of one attack after another on Obama and his record, and the basic theme was that the president wants to make our society more European in the way it provides social welfare. Romney boldly -- and, to be sure, unfairly -- frames the campaign as a battle for the nation's soul.
Administration officials always believed Romney would be Obama's toughest opponent. They're right. Listening to Romney's skillfully chosen words, I thought: Game on.
Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/eugenerobinson.