Jim Antle is right, the Republican presidential contest is now a race for second. But why would anyone want to be runner-up? Actually, there’s a very good reason: assuming any of the candidates emerges as a credible not-Romney, he’ll have a leg up on the 2016 or 2020 nomination. In Ron Paul’s case, it’s not the congressman himself who will run again, but his son, Sen. Rand Paul. Santorum could make another bid, though I think it’s more likely he’ll attempt some kind of resurrection in Pennsylvania. And Huntsman? He’s following McCain’s path, and Romney’s too. Both of them reaped rewards from the time and money they spent in New Hampshire in 2000 and 2008. The Granite State saved McCain in the last cycle — he had a base of goodwill and name ID left over from 2000 — and this year Romney has seemingly turned it into his booster rocket, the win that will propel him to safe margins in South Carolina and Florida.

What Huntsman hopes to accomplish at this point is to establish himself as the New Hampshire frontrunner for 2016. Maybe he’ll choose not to run, but if he does, he can count on already being a familiar face.

These early states really do matter. Think about the calculation that someone like Mitch Daniels faced this cycle. Could he outraise Mitt Romney and Rick Perry? No. Could he be assured of doing well in Iowa? No — because he’d be neither the best-funded candidate nor the best fit for Iowa’s evangelicals. Could he win New Hampshire? Not very likely, given Romney’s investment in the state. Huntsman has deeper pockets than Daniels, and we’ve seen that his all-out-in-NH strategy hasn’t been enough to stop the former Massachusetts governor. Obviously there are many other variables that play into a prospective candidate’s judgment, but if thinks he can be assured of doing well in at least one of the three early contests that matter — the dollar primary, Iowa, or New Hampshire — he has a hypothetical path to the nomination. You have to win a battle before you can win the war. A strategy that begins with South Carolina is simply too late; by then there’s already a frontrunner.

Addendum: The George Bush precedent applies to Ron and Rand Paul, by the way. Early polls show that George W. Bush did indeed get a boost in New Hampshire and elsewhere from identification with his father. Rand’s name, of course, isn’t identical to his father’s, but the brand should carry over quite well nonetheless.

Addendum 2: Politico beat me to it, but takes a rather less hard-headed view of the matter.