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N.H. Primary Is GOP's Next Nominating Contest


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

We brought in our political brain trust this morning. We're going to talk over the rapidly-shifting Republican presidential race. Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent. She's on the line.

Mara, good morning.


WERTHEIMER: And Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. Good morning to you.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Now, let's just remind people that during all these months of going up and down in the polls, from all of the people who were down the ballot, insiders have said that Mitt Romney is still going to be the nominee.

Now that the actual voting has started, does it still look that way to you, Ken?

RUDIN: Well, it does. I mean, first of all, he did win this landslide in Iowa. Was it like eight votes, and...


RUDIN: ...pretty exciting. But also, he was not expected to win Iowa. The big story, of course, is Rick Santorum.

But Mitt Romney, whether he be won or lost Iowa, was always looking at New Hampshire as a firewall. In that, you know, he's - strong ties there. He was the governor of neighboring Massachusetts. He has the endorsement of everybody in the state, all the establishment folks - Congressman Charlie Bass, Senator Kelly Ayotte, John Sununu. Even had John McCain, who won New Hampshire twice, coming in on his behalf.

But his problem has always been with the conservative wing of the party. We saw in Iowa that he only got 25 percent. In national polls he's only getting 25 percent. The White House is calling him the 25 Percent Man, mocking the fact that he can't break that barrier. So, he is still the odds-on favorite to win it. But he's got to unite the Republican - the conservatives around him.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask Mara Liasson about something there. Newt Gingrich actually was talking about that same 25 percent this week. He laid out this theory; he said Romney is not going to get past 25 percent in many states. His many rivals will be narrowed down and eventually somebody will be left who has more support than Mitt Romney.

Is that possible, Mara Liasson?

LIASSON: Well, I suppose it's possible, but it doesn't look very likely, because it's taking an awfully long time for his rivals to be whittled down. We thought that's what Iowa did it, but then Rick Perry decided to stay in, in South Carolina. And that presents a huge barrier for someone like Rick Santorum, who thought for a minute there that he had emerged as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, out of Iowa. But he didn't.

In South Carolina, you're still going to have a fractured field. It's still hard for conservatives to decide who they're going to rally around, as the alternative to Romney. And in that case, 25 percent or thereabouts becomes just enough to win these primaries.

You know, one thing about this race - for all its weirdness and twists and turns - it still is following the traditional form for a Republican primary. There is an establishment candidate. There are some conservative alternatives. Usually the establishment guy wins; that seems what's like what's happening this time.

And the guy who came in second last time - because the Republicans are still a hierarchical party, despite the Tea Party - is first this time. It happened with McCain. It looks like it's happening with Romney. And the other thing, it looks like Republicans, as Bill Clinton used to say, fall in line instead of falling in love. Yes, Romney has weaknesses but they haven't - conservatives have not been able to find an alternative.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I'm fascinated by the idea though that Rick Santorum did jump out of Iowa with so much strength. I mean he was in there with almost no money with a bus, and he got through Iowa and started into New Hampshire. He's talking about having raised a lot of money, just in the last few days, much of it on the Internet.

Ken, do you think it's possible that the not-Romney-vote could coalesce around him; that it could be numerous enough to, you know, to at least send him on?

RUDIN: Well, the reason I don't think so is, well, one: because you still have Ron Paul who had a very strong showing in Iowa, and who is very well-organized in New Hampshire. You still have Newt Gingrich who's ready to savage Romney in the two debates this weekend, Saturday night and Sunday morning.

And also, we've seen social conservatives come out of Iowa in the past. Mike Huckabee, who won Iowa four years ago, finished a weak third with 11 percent in New Hampshire a week later. The kind of social conservatives they do so well in Iowa, don't necessarily do so well in New Hampshire.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned social conservatives. I want to ask you both. Rick Santorum is a guy who's known more for the social issues than economic issues. And economic issues, of course, are what this campaign has been expected to be all about.

Just yesterday, Rick Santorum was in New Hampshire and got into an exchange - a rather fierce exchange - with students over gay marriage. Is this something that Republicans want to emphasize?

RUDIN: Well, they certainly do in Iowa. They certainly did in Iowa. And we've seen in the past - and then Mara will talk about this too - but when he comes to New Hampshire, it is more of an economic argument, and that's been the basis of Romney's candidacy from the outset.

INSKEEP: And what about on the national stage, Mara Liasson?

LIASSON: No, I don't think this is going to be a social issue campaign. I actually think Rick Santorum is trying not to be just a social issue candidate. He said all along, he has, you know, expertise all across the board. He's stressed his foreign policy credentials, which he says Mitt Romney doesn't have, because he served in the Senate - because Santorum served in the Senate. So I think that social issues are not what Republicans would like to have at the top of the list for them. I think the White House would very much like to paint whoever is the Republican nominee as too far to the right on social issues. But I think the economy is going to be the number one issue, and will be.

WERTHEIMER: What about the idea that Mitt Romney turned the big guns - his PAC, turned big guns onto Newt Gingrich in Iowa and basically just knocked him right off his perch? Who does the Romney PAC go after in the next few days?

LIASSON: Well, they probably go after Santorum. He's bought – Romney himself has bought hundreds of thousands of dollars of advertising in South Carolina and Florida. But I think what's really interesting, you mentioned Gingrich. What happened to Newt Gingrich? Gingrich came out of Iowa saying he was going to attack Romney. He'd, kind of, no more Mr. Nice Guy. He was furious about the poll.

WERTHEIMER: No more nice Newt.

LIASSON: No more nice Newt.

INSKEEP: We've always known how nice Newt...

LIASSON: Yes, how nice he was. But he said that he was going to fight back. He also said that he would team up with Santorum, kind of riding shotgun with Santorum in an attack on Romney. It almost sounded like he didn't care so much about being the nominee anymore. He just wanted to damage Romney.

But what happens when they got to New Hampshire? Gingrich and Santorum start sniping at each other. Yesterday they were arguing over their Congressional records. Gingrich said Santorum was just a junior partner. Santorum said Newt sat on the sidelines during the Congressional scandals - House scandals in the early '90s. All that is good – more good news for Mitt Romney.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention that we are seven minutes and something into this discussion of the Republican presidential campaign? The New Hampshire primary is next, and we have yet to mention Jon Huntsman.

RUDIN: Well, Jon Huntsman...

LIASSON: There's a reason for that.


RUDIN: Jon Huntsman did the old John McCain strategy of missing – bypassing Iowa completely, and hoping to make a big deal in New Hampshire. Now, of course, it worked for John McCain who did it both in 2000 and 2008, won New Hampshire both, but also – he's also possibly emulating Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman, other kind of moderate guys – not that Jon Huntsman is a moderate, but compared to the rest of the field he is – who missed – bypassed Iowa, went to New Hampshire, and were never heard from again.

INSKEEP: Mara Liasson?

LIASSON: I pretty much agree with that. Jon Huntsman has tried everything he could. He pretty much moved to New Hampshire, camped out there. Maybe the kiss of death was that he got the endorsement of the Boston Globe, not a paper that's beloved by conservatives in New Hampshire.

INSKEEP: Or anywhere.

LIASSON: But he might – well, let's not, you know, completely write him off. I mean, he might be a factor in these debates. He's part of this concerted multi-front attack on Mitt Romney, even if the anti-Romney vote never coalesces around one candidate, you are going to see a lot of attacks on Romney for the first time.

He's been very lucky. He hasn't had the kind of pummeling that he delivered to Newt Gingrich. He's been relatively unscathed. I think that Saturday night and Sunday morning in those debates you will see all the candidates - Huntsman, Gingrich, and Santorum - all ganging up on Mitt Romney.

INSKEEP: And Santorum's got money for ads, which Romney's opponents have not had up to now.

RUDIN: He does, but he also has a – now there's a reason to examine his record and for all this time in the debates he's been the unnamed person. Now he will be a focus.

INSKEEP: Ken, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor, and Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent. Mara, thanks to you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: We're looking forward to seeing you in New Hampshire. We'll be taking the program to New Hampshire for the primary early next week.


INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.