MERRIMACK, N.H. — Mitt Romney heads out of New Hampshire on Wednesday on a probable march to the Republican presidential nomination — but with scars and weaknesses that could lead him to limp weakly into a general election against President Barack Obama.
On the plus side, his back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire were unprecedented; anti-Romney conservatives head to South Carolina as divided as ever; and polls signal that he could win both South Carolina and Florida against that fractured opposition for a January sweep. That probably would clinch the nomination for him.
Yet he received an often-tepid response from Republicans, even in his own New England backyard. He faces a blistering ad assault in South Carolina that could hurt him among moderates and independents critical to the fall vote. And he's shown a tendency to utter politically tone-deaf quotes that signal difficulty connecting with working-class voters who appear ripe for the picking from the Democrats.
"He's pretty much had it his way so far," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York, which polls for McClatchy and NBC News. "He's not very strong for a front-runner who could be on the verge of locking up the nomination."
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and his top aides are confident that he'll rally more Republicans as he campaigns through the Jan. 21 primary in South Carolina and the Jan. 31 primary in Florida. "Winning begets winning," said one top adviser.
They also have the only campaign machinery equipped for a state-by-state slog across the country if necessary. Rival Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, for example, is largely conceding Florida, saving money for other states.
Beyond Paul, who has libertarian niche appeal, conservative voters remain divided among the other GOP candidates, unable or unwilling to rally to a single anti-Romney. None of his rivals show any sign of breaking out from the rest of the pack.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, for example, failed to build on his close Iowa finish with enough of a vote in New Hampshire to scare anyone else off.
While he'll have appeal to South Carolina's evangelical Christians, he cannot replicate the long courtship that he used in Iowa, where he spent 105 days leading up to the caucuses, the most of any candidate in either party since 1988.
Similarly, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman cannot match the 66 days he spent in New Hampshire, more than any other top candidate.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas also will contend for the conservative vote in South Carolina — good news for Romney, because they split his opposition.
Romney leads in South Carolina polls, with Gingrich and Santorum vying for second.
Romney also can think ahead thanks to his big bankroll and deep organization. He's already reaching out by mail and robo-calls to many of the 410,000 Florida Republicans who have requested ballots to vote early. At the same time, he's expected to start advertising on Spanish language media in Miami-Dade County, reaching out to Cuban-Americans.
And as happened in Iowa, the independent pro-Romney group Restore Our Future already is hitting Republican mailboxes with pamphlets slamming Gingrich.
Recent polls show Romney leading in Florida, with Gingrich his closest competitor.
For all those strengths going forward, Romney still heads into the next phase of the primaries with some weaknesses revealed and facing new attacks that could hurt him.
First, Republicans in New Hampshire were often unenthusiastic about him. His town hall meetings sometimes were flat, and many voters said they would vote for him, but without any passion.
"He's probably the only one who can beat Obama," said Leon Simoneau, a money manager from Hudson. "I'd like other people to be able to beat Obama. ... Ron Paul would shake it up. But he can't beat Obama."
"Very few people actually like Romney," said Tim Fortier, a car salesman from Hollis. "If he's the nominee, people will hold their nose and vote for him, but you'd be amazed how little enthusiasm there is for the guy."
"There's not a lot of passion there," said Miringoff, who polled both Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans. "There was a lot of energy in the GOP in 2010. Will it be there in 2012? Or will it dissipate as the Obama energy from 2008 has dissipated?"
Also, Romney created an enemy when he buried Gingrich under an avalanche of negative ads in Iowa.
Now, Gingrich heads to South Carolina waging a scorched-Mitt campaign baked by a sudden infusion of cash to a pro-Gingrich group from a Las Vegas casino magnate.
Gingrich is ripping Romney for his work at Bain Capital, a private-equity firm that helped bankroll such successful businesses as Staples, but also drove layoffs at some firms. The pro-Gingrich group, Winning our Future, will hit Romney with a flood of $3.4 million worth of ads in South Carolina.
That campaign, while unlikely to win the nomination for Gingrich, dovetails with attacks on Romney to come from Democrats and liberal media commentators. It feeds a story line of Romney as robber baron that could hurt him in the eyes of moderate and independent voters in the fall.
Finally, after 15 strong and disciplined performances in much-watched debates, Romney in the past few days made several verbal missteps that fed his image as a rich elitist far from the working class.
In a debate Sunday, he suggested that only wealthy people should run for public office. Recalling a talk with his late father, he recalled, "He had good advice to me. He said, 'Mitt, never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage."'
On Monday, he set off a pre-primary firestorm with the way he argued that people should have the right to "fire" a health insurance company, saying, "I like being able to fire people."
Hours later, he rejected the suggestion that he should work harder with his rhetoric to connect to voters.
"If you think that I should spend my entire campaign carefully choosing how everything I say relates to people, as opposed to saying my own experience and telling my own experience, then that would make me a very different person than I am," Romney said.
"I'll tell my experiences in life, and I realize they're not the same as everybody else I speak with. But I'm going to tell you about myself."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington