MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Politico's Mike Allen sounded a bit existential Monday night during a media panel at Saint Anselm College. "Why are we here?" he asked ABC's Jonathan Karl.
Allen was talking about reporting from New Hampshire rather than South Carolina, the upcoming primary race expected to prove more surprising than the one wrapping up Tuesday night. Karl acknowledged that "none of us here are predicting in any way that Romney's not going to win," before joking that there's still a "brutal battle for fourth place." Twelve hours later, it was Allen answering the questions about the primary's anticipated outcome. "We know Mitt Romney's going to win," Willie Geist said to Allen on MSNBC's "Morning Joe. "What happens after that?"
Since trekking from Des Moines to Manchester, political reporters and pundits have often asked themselves or colleagues such questions. Given the polls, everyone expects Romney to win the Republican primary. And it's assumed he'll take first place by considerably more than an eight-vote margin.
So after each jam-packed event, there's inevitably been chatter about finally getting out of the Granite State and on to the first Southern primary. The political media circus, at its height in Iowa and New Hampshire, will start to break apart, as the candidates' trajectories diverge, making coverage all the more manageable.
Of course, New Hampshire, famous for bucking conventional wisdom, remains to be settled. It was only four years ago that Barack Obama, holding onto a double-digit lead on the eve of the primary, lost to Hillary Clinton. The pundits, hasty in their predictions, were chastened by the vote results. Still, recent history hasn't prompted the press to consider that Romney may not win.
Political reporters love a horse race, with candidates jockeying in the primary's waning days toward the finish line. The fight for second, never mind a "battle for fourth," isn't as exciting as who takes the state. So it's not surprising that reporters have been getting restless, even bored during the past week.
Walter Shapiro, a New Republic special correspondent covering his ninth New Hampshire primary, wrote that he couldn't recall a "contested race in either party this devoid of energy. It feels like the primary is being conducted underwater, with every movement slow and exaggerated."
For days, they've trekked to diners, gymnasiums and factories, creating a "mob-like atmosphere" that has at times kept voters and late-arriving reporters from getting anywhere near the candidates. That's how Jesse Benton, national chairman of Ron Paul's campaign, described a Monday scene in which the candidate quickly fled as his wife was shoved by a member of the media.
On Tuesday, Romney "was crushed by the media throng," according to the Washington Post, with his security team rushing him and wife Ann into an SUV and away "without talking to voters." A Politico reporter described a Tuesday morning Gingrich event as a "total disaster" to cover.
Even campaign surrogates, like spokespeople or prominent supporters, have been mobbed by dozens of journalists when making appearances in the "spin room" following the weekend debates.
"The media horde is now so large in the final week," Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz said during Monday's panel.
"You feel as though this closeness that is sometimes built up between candidates and voters is somewhat missing this year," he added. "I don't know whether that's permanent. My hunch is that it may be."
But packed events around haven't stopped the journalist hive from buzzing. Like Iowa, reporters have constantly churned out tweets, articles, videos and camera phone photos before, during and after candidates take the stage.
With Romney the expected winner here and the favorite for the nomination, reporters have packed into his events throughout the past few days. There were likely more than 100 journalists on hand for a Sunday rally at Exeter High School, including a who's-who of the media elite: Time's Mark Halperin and Joe Klein, Bloomberg's Al Hunt, the Washington Post's E. J. Dionne, CNNs David Gergen, the BBC's Katty Kay and Andy Rosenthal and Peter Canellos, editorial page editors for the New York Times and Boston Globe, respectively.
While Romney is speaking before more journalists onstage, he's dialed down his media engagement offstage. He briefly abandoned that frontrunner strategy during Gingrich's December surge and could be found not only taking more questions but handing out sandwiches to reporters on the press bus.
How quickly things change: Romney's now only held one media availability since Jan. 1, appearing for five minutes in front of dozens of journalists Monday in an attempt to rebound from recent stumbles over pink slips and admitting to having enjoyed firing people.
As the candidates make their final appeals, pundits prepare to draft the New Hampshire narrative depending on the size of victory.
"Romney will win; the question is by how much: Above 40 percent is a huge win," Dionne wrote on the Washington Post predictions roundup. "A victory with 30 percent of the vote or less would be a disastrous win; it would be widely interpreted as a sign of weakness. In between, and it will be up to the spin doctors."
Since the media's already proclaimed Romney the winner, it's the size of his victory that will be the primary post-New Hampshire takeaway, followed by how, say, Jon Huntsman fares in a state he's based is campaign around and where he's been recently on the upswing. Bill Clinton famously got the media bounce -- and "Comeback Kid" moniker -- after coming in a surprising second in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. Simply winning a race you're expected to win doesn't guarantee positive headlines, as the media may set the bar high.
"My bet is the press will argue he has to get above 30 percent in the total vote on Tuesday," Gergen told The Huffington Post, shortly after Romney's Exeter rally. "And if he doesn't make that, they'll say, 'he fell short.' Even if he were to get less than 35, there are people who may say that. Even though the public would say, 'he wins, he wins, he wins.'"