MANCHESTER, N.H. -- As Mitt Romney appears likely to cruise to victory in New Hampshire, it has become increasingly clear that the most consequential battle in Tuesday's primary will be the struggle for second place.
Unless something truly unforeseen occurs over the next five days, Romney's big lead in the polls and considerable institutional advantages here will be more than enough to propel him to a win.
With a potential blowout brewing, much of the broader campaign narrative has already begun to shift to South Carolina, where the race remains more uncertain.
But not so fast.
How Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman fill in the second- to fifth-place slots in New Hampshire will largely determine who has momentum going into the first-in-the-South primary that has been won by every eventual Republican nominee since Ronald Reagan.
"It feels out there that, even amongst the candidates themselves, they're just trying to come out of here as the alternative to Romney," said New Hampshire Republican strategist Rich Killion.
According to the polls, Ron Paul appears best-positioned to secure a second-place finish, but a New Hampshire silver medal is far from a foregone conclusion for the Texas congressman.
The Paul campaign fought hard to win the Iowa caucuses, where they believed victory was within reach, but the libertarian-leaning candidate's third-place showing there might deflate the upward trajectory he appeared to be on just last week.
Unlike the other candidates, who are campaigning almost around the clock, Paul returned to Texas for a two-day respite from the trail after Iowa, and his next scheduled event in New Hampshire is not until Friday afternoon, when he will hold a rally in Nashua.
Paul's New Hampshire communications director, Kate Schackai, did not deny that a second-place showing is what they are aiming for here.
"I think it would provide us with momentum," she said. "I think we'll be very pleased with that."
But South Carolina is not an especially inviting state for Paul, whose goal appears to be to accumulate as many delegates as possible heading into the Republican convention.
For Santorum, however, a stronger than expected showing in the Granite State could go a long way toward setting up a scenario by which he becomes a front-runner in South Carolina.
"If we can finish third, that's a damn good place to be, and I think we have a chance of finishing second," Santorum told the New Hampshire Union Leader.
After working the state quietly for months, Santorum is now drawing large crowds to his events here and has ticked upward in the polls, despite his inherent challenge making inroads among a Republican electorate that is more secular and socially moderate than it is in many other parts of the country.
Santorum has made it a point in New Hampshire to emphasize his northeastern roots and working-class credentials, and his Catholic faith could provide him an added boost in a state that is 35 percent Catholic.
New Hampshire-based political observers generally agree that Santorum's prospects here are better than what Mike Huckabee -- another socially conservative Republican whose late Iowa surged failed to catch on in New Hampshire -- was up against when he finished a distant third here in 2008.
But Santorum still has not faced the attacks from his Republican rivals that will surely come if he proves his viability in the closely watched WMUR/UNH poll, which is slated to be released on Friday night.
Santorum's campaign says it raised more than $1 million the day after his Iowa triumph, but his small ad-buy in New Hampshire is not expected to move the dial much.
Furthermore, the Union Leader -- the state's largest newspaper, which has been advocating heavily for Gingrich since it endorsed him in November -- may limit Santorum's ability to coalesce the anti-Romney conservative vote in the state.
"Santorum is capped because of the Union Leader's endorsement of Gingrich," said Mike Dennehy, who twice led John McCain's successful campaigns here. "If Gingrich wasn't in the race, or if [Santorum] had money to persuade voters off of Gingrich or Paul, then maybe. But he has no money. He has no way to persuade voters other than free media."
The Union Leader has had a mixed record of success in its previous endorsements, and Gingrich's New Hampshire operation remains somewhat barebones. He did not even officially open his campaign headquarters here until mid-November.
Gingrich's most valuable remaining New Hampshire asset might be the two televised debates that are scheduled this weekend, which will provide him an opportunity to recapture the on-stage magic that propelled him into the lead nationally just weeks ago.
The former House speaker has signaled that he will spend the remaining days before the primary on the attack against Romney -- a strategy that might attract undecided voters in the conservative wing of the party who are hoping to find the Romney alternative with the sharpest teeth.
Jon Huntsman is another candidate vying for second place who is becoming more forceful in his anti-Romney rhetoric.
But the former Utah governor's aggressiveness has fluctuated over his months of unceasing campaigning in this state, where he has banked his long-shot hopes, and Huntsman has not topped 13 percent in a single poll here.
Huntsman is hoping that his unparalleled level of retail campaigning will pay off in the way that Santorum's did in Iowa, where the former Pennsylvania senator worked harder than anyone else but did not break into double digits until two weeks before his photo finish with Romney.
Huntsman has suggested that he is likely to drop out of the race if he does not finish in the top three in New Hampshire, and a distant third-place showing also will likely bar him from gaining any momentum heading into South Carolina, where he has an experienced team in place but little visibility.
Aides from each of the campaigns vying for second place in New Hampshire agree that the ultimate outcome remains unpredictable and heavily dependent on the two remaining debates.
Politico reported on Thursday that the Gingrich and Santorum camps have discussed forming a nonaggression pact designed to gang up on Romney.
Still, the more immediate concern for all of Romney's challengers in New Hampshire is each other.