CONCORD, N.H. -- Mitt Romney became a candidate Monday for the New Hampshire Republican primary.
The former Massachusetts governor's formal filing with New Hampshire's top election official was little more than a photo opportunity for a man who has been running for president -- formally and informally -- for the better part of the last five years. But his visit to the state capital offered a reminder of the huge stakes at play for Romney in New Hampshire, which is expected to host the nation's first Republican presidential primary in less than 80 days.
Friends and foes alike agree that his political future depends upon a win here. It won't guarantee the Republican nomination, but a loss in a state where he enjoys strong natural advantages may very well lead to defeat.
Romney's recent dominance in local polls only adds to lofty expectations here.
The former Massachusetts governor has led the crowded Republican field by no fewer than 18 points -- and as many as 32 points -- this month among New Hampshire voters.
"As long as he wins, I think he'll be fine," said Alan S. Glassman, chairman of the Belknap County Republican Committee.
A second-place finish four years ago helped sink Romney's first White House bid. But a simple win in 2012 may not be enough -- according to his rivals, anyway. They're pushing the notion that a victory by anything less than double digits amounts to a symbolic loss in New Hampshire, where Romney enjoys a summer home, near-universal name recognition and a ballooning network of prominent supporters, some of whom have been working on his behalf for years.
New Hampshire is also the only early voting state to allow independents to participate in the Republican primary. That's good news for Romney's chances here, as he has struggled to win over some conservative activists who are more prominent in places like Iowa and South Carolina.
"Governor Romney has been campaigning in New Hampshire for over half a decade. He is literally a resident of the state," said Tim Miller, a spokesman for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and a Romney rival for the nomination. "It's impossible to overstate his expectations."
Welcome to the ever-spinning world of presidential politics, where a win is sometimes a loss and second place can represent both victory and failure. Romney's top advisers addressed the New Hampshire expectations challenge on Monday, largely downplaying the relevance of early polling in a state known for voters that break late.
"We have to win this state, and we intend to win this state," said Tom Rath, a Romney adviser during the first and second campaigns. "We never stopped working, some of us, after we lost the last one. We stayed at it and now it's bearing fruit."
A veteran Republican operative, Rath described expectations associated with strong poll numbers as "a good problem to have," noting that momentum is generally paramount in presidential politics.
"What you can't do anymore is deny the existence of public polls. They're out there. Those of us that are close to it don't ignore them, but also realize they're ephemeral and they can change very quickly," he said. "You know there's an inevitable closing of the numbers that will occur. It happens in every election and it will happen in this one."
Romney got a big boost this weekend after announcing the endorsement of former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, who was at Romney's side when Romney filed the paperwork to get his name on the ballot at the State House Monday.
"I hope it takes this time," Romney said of his second run at the presidency.
Sununu, a former chief of staff in the first Bush White House, laughed off talk of high expectations tied to big leads in the polls.
"Look, would you rather be behind? Whenever you're in a campaign that's behind you try and set your opponent's expectations high," he said. "Primaries are cycles -- they go up and they go down -- as long as we're up on primary day, that's all that counts."
The New Hampshire presidential primary will likely be scheduled for Jan. 10 -- just 11 weeks away.