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Time for the show?
After months of false starts, the 2012 primary is finally under way

09/15/11



On Saturday morning, Aug. 13, Rick Perry, the swaggering Texas governor, announced in the Palmetto State that he would be running for president. The announcement came as a surprise to no one, as speculation had been gaining momentum for weeks. Perry’s timing wasn’t by accident either. He looked to steal the thunder from his rival candidates who were participating in the Ames Straw Poll that day. For Perry it was a moment full of possibilities. The sun was just rising on his campaign.

Less than 24 hours later, the sun set on another governor. In Iowa, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, having already spent millions of dollars campaigning, told the ABC program This Week that “...obviously, the pathway forward for me doesn’t really exist. And so we’re going to end the campaign.”
Right up until the middle of last month, another governor, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, stayed the course at the front of the campaign pack. He looked like the frontrunner and he acted like the frontrunner. He campaigned against President Barack Obama while essentially ignoring any shots from his opponents.

“Everybody wanted an alternative for Mitt [Romney] but there was no alternative,” said Arnie Arnesen, host of the radio talk show Political Chowder.

Three weeks ago, that alternative looked like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. She was a rising star. Now the narrative is that she hasn’t built on her victory at the Ames Straw Poll, that she didn’t effectively communicate her message during last week’s debate, that the race is really just between Romney and Perry. It all speaks to the fluidity of the race. Tomorrow there could be a new rising star.

The original star was Romney, who hadn’t needed to make the case against anybody other than Obama, said Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“It’s a little dicier now,” Scala said.

“Romney is a different type of politician than Perry, not just in style and appearance but also in policy positions,” said political analyst Dean Spiliotes.

Arnesen said Perry is the bridge between voters yearning for someone with an established record as governor and voters yearning for a social and religious conservative.

“Perry is everything the angry Republican wants,” Arnesen said.

Romney and Perry can each claim different segments of the GOP base. They are proxies for one of the questions this primary will answer for the Republican party: which direction does the party want to go?

In the beginning, there was Mitt


No election is an isolated event, and the 2012 primary is no exception.

The race, which began in earnest in the Granite State this past winter, actually began in 2008. When Sen. John McCain won the Republican nomination he was faced with a decision: who to choose as his running mate. At the time, a short list of names circulated, including McCain’s longtime friend Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (which would have been the second time as a running mate for the former Democrat; he was on Al Gore’s ticket in 2000) and Pawlenty, a young governor from Minnesota who was known as a policy guy.

However, McCain went with an unknown Alaska governor named Sarah Palin. The choice of Palin was surprising but not shocking. McCain needed a star to match the fanfare Barack Obama was generating. Palin had an interesting narrative and the ability to fire up a crowd. She also split history: Either Obama won and became the first African-American president or McCain won and Palin was the first woman on a winning ticket.

The 2008 election took Palin and made here a megastar, much as it did with Obama.

“In 2008 you had Palin and Obama who generated a lot of excitement,” said James Basbas of Altos Marketing and creator of the 2012 Presidential Election Facebook page. But, he said, 2012 voters seemed at least initially to turn away from speeches and big crowds and look for candidates who seem more substantial.
Romney was also part of the class of 2008.

Romney’s high level of name recognition coming off his 2008 run and his much-touted experience as a businessman helped him earn the label of frontrunner coming into the 2012 race. Romney owns a home in Wolfeboro, and though he’d hardly be considered a native son, he does have a certain home court advantage, at least in the form of being a known commodity in New Hampshire.

Romney’s moderate political positioning makes him a match for New Hampshire voters, who tend to be more moderate than the GOP electorate at large, analysts said.

“I think probably what defines Republican voters [in New Hampshire], unites them all, is small government, regardless of whether you’re a liberty voter, conservative, or a traditional Republican, whatever you think of yourself, we’re all fighting for limited government, small government, less spending, tax-cutting policies...,” said Jennifer Horn, a two-time Republican congressional candidate.

Some issues play differently in other parts of the country and subsequently have greater influence, but in New Hampshire the driving issue is economic. Horn said she thought there is a growing liberty movement in the Republican party that has become stronger. She expects that movement to have more influence this time around

And Romney has a money advantage. His skill as a fundraiser is apparent in the numbers released for campaign contributions raised in the second quarter of 2011. Romney raised more than $18 million while Ron Paul came in second, raising $4.5 million. Pawlenty, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann each raised about $4 million.

Still, Romney is not going to be mistaken for a rock star in the mold of Obama and Palin.

“I don’t know how many stories there are left to write about Mitt Romney,” Basbas said. “The press wanted something new. There’s a difference between what is newsworthy and what people talk about.”

The T-Paw alternative; Gingrich returns

The desire from political watchers and some in the Republican party for an alternative to Romney helped fuel early interest in Tim Pawlenty, who began campaigning in New Hampshire early in 2011.

For Sean Van Anglen, a Republican activist from Bedford who endorsed Pawlenty early in the process, there was much to like about Pawlenty. First off, he had a record of accomplishments in Minnesota, a state that has a history of electing Democrats. Pawlenty had taken on unions, balanced the budget without raising taxes and even had experience overseas, as he traveled to the Middle East while governor. His only blemish to conservatives was that he had previously supported cap-and-trade. Pawlenty, who had been known nationally as a policy wonk, took on the persona of T-Paw, a fiery fiscally conservative preacher, which was certainly an attempt to appeal to the tea party activists. However, in the first New Hampshire debate, when given a chance to attack Mitt Romney for his Massachusetts healthcare bill, Pawlenty shied away and things went downhill from there. Interestingly, Pawlenty endorsed Romney this week.

Other possible candidates also put their toe in early, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who had an established record in Congress and is a stalwart of social conservatism; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who is known as an ideas man and helped engineer the party’s 1994 success, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who had been espousing the values of the tea party since the 1970s. These four, and to a lesser extent Georgia businessman Herman Cain and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, seemed like substantial challengers to frontrunner Romney.

Santorum spent the better part of a year and a half campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s known as a hard-working, gritty campaigner and he certainly lived up to that. But his social conservatism and lack of widespread name recognition likely made it difficult for him to cultivate traction in New Hampshire.

Cain wowed crowds early on with his straightforward views on what the country needed. He injects a little humor and a CEO’s mentality into the fray, but he’s stumbled in some areas, notably his statements that he wouldn’t hire a Muslim in his administration. While he opened a campaign headquarters in New Hampshire a few weeks ago, he hasn’t spent as much time as others in the Granite State.

Adding credence to his popularity was a June Gallup poll that found Romney polling at 24 percent. His closest rival at the time was Sarah Palin (who was not a candidate) at 16 percent. Cain had nine percent, Paul had 7 percent, Pawlenty and Santorum both polled at 6 percent. Both Bachmann and Gingrich had 5 percent, Gary Johnson was at 2 percent and Huntsman and Perry (who had yet to declare) were at 1 percent. Times have changed. An August Gallup poll found Perry leading with 29 percent, Romney in second at 17 percent, Paul in third at 13 percent and Bachmann in fourth at 10 percent. Cain and Gingrich were at 4 percent, Santorum at 3 percent and Huntsman still at 1 percent.

While Romney has been dominant in New Hampshire, nationally voters seemed hungry for something different. Cain’s popularity has waned, as he has never held an elected position before. Gingrich shines during debates but has been unwilling, thus far, to engage in the type of retail politics needed to win New Hampshire.

Former State Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen didn’t think there was anything specific lacking in Romney that made Republicans swoon over other prospective candidates, like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He said almost two-thirds of voters opted against Ronald Reagan in his New Hampshire primary in 1980. That’s a product of having multiple candidates vying for votes and less because there’s something necessarily wrong with a candidate.

“I don’t sense a large amount of dissatisfaction with the field,” Cullen said.

But the reality that Romney signed a health care law in Massachusetts that is similar to Obamacare doesn’t help him. The fact that he’s seen as somewhat of a flip-flopper on issues could hurt him in the area of authenticity, analysts said. Notably, Romney switched his position on abortion from pro-choice to pro-life. Some say he flip-flopped on gay rights as well. He says he is opposed to same-sex marriage, though he claimed in a 1994 letter he penned while running for Senate in Massachusetts against the late Sen. Ted Kennedy that he’d do more for gay rights than his opponent.

Michele’s moment
Coming into summer, the field still had an opening for Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who would officially enter the race on the night of the debate at Saint Anselm College in June.

Bachmann, of all the candidates, appealed the most to the tea party movement. She earned a reputation as a crusader who battled against the so-called Obamacare and, later, Congress’s decision to raise the debt ceiling. Her uncompromising nature on spending issues in particular was appealing to many tea party followers in New Hampshire.

But Bachmann struggled in the beginning and was prone to gaffes, such as a comment that mixed up New Hampshire and Massachusetts in Revolutionary War history. She is a relative newcomer to national politics, only having been a U.S. representative since 2007. Bachmann won the aforementioned Ames Straw Poll (she was born in Iowa). But she didn’t have time to build bounce after that victory. Perry’s entrance to the race on the same day sucked away a lot of the attention.

Bachmann’s fiscal stances naturally play well in New Hampshire, but her more conservative social stances aren’t necessarily a match. Her presence in New Hampshire has been nearly non-existent and her campaign officials reportedly acknowledged New Hampshire isn’t a big part of their strategy.

“We can’t measure her support if she doesn’t spend time here,” Horn said. “Any candidate who chooses to pass on New Hampshire is making a fatal error in campaign strategy. … It’s proven to be an important launching pad, a critical step in the process.”

A quick chat with Rudy Giuliani would probably reveal how skipping New Hampshire is a mistake, Horn said.

Other others

Over the course of the summer, a narrative formed: Romney would dominate a weak field. But many major donors continued to sit on the sidelines, presumably waiting for a Chris Christie, a Mitch Daniels or a Jeb Bush to enter the race. In fact, in the second quarter (April, May and June), President Obama out-fundraised all the Republican candidates by more than double.

Somewhere in the thick of the early evolution, a candidate with deep pockets of his own flirted with the race. In the spring, Donald Trump’s private helicopter touched down at Pease International Tradeport and the Donald strutted across the tarmac to an eager media throng. But Trump’s dalliance ended when he needed to sign a new contract with NBC. Being president wasn’t as lucrative as being a television star.

Trump generated excitement, but Republicans across the country still visited the offices of Daniels and Christie, imploring the two men to run. Both flirted with the prospect, as did Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Those three governors were hardly as flashy as Trump, but they were big names with big credentials. In the end, though, none of them entered. At the time, conventional wisdom seemed to make sense: it is difficult to defeat an incumbent. Perhaps 2016 would be better. But then the economy never got better and conservative mega-voices like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham were saying now is the time to run and win.

Who they got instead was mild-mannered and sophisticated former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. Huntsman had the résumé, looks, and ideas to be a true contender. A weakness of his in an already crowded Republican primary field was a glaring one: he used to work for the man Republicans were trying to replace. Huntsman’s most recent post was that of Ambassador to China within the Obama administration. In an interview with the Hippo, Huntsman said when you’re called to serve America you answer regardless of who placed the call. It was the type of narrative the media loves, and before entering, Huntsman received his fair share of headlines. In fact, a major news network originally assigned a reporter to cover only him, but as his campaign failed to gain traction, the reporter was asked to cover the rest of the candidates as well.

Such a decision seems validated in the polls where Huntsman has hovered at 1 percent throughout the summer. Analysts believe the reason is simple: he appeals to the same voters as Romney — moderate Republicans and independents — and Romney is simply more well-known, especially since Huntsman entered the race with low name recognition.

Others entered the race as well, including Michigan Congressman Thad McCotter, who looked around at the current field and thought his ideas were just as worthy, and former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, who is the only candidate who served previously as both a congressman and a governor, although that experience was 20 years ago. Fred Karger, a longtime Republican operative, hopped into the race as well, as the first openly gay Republican presidential candidate.

While these entries failed to shake up the race, two names kept circulating: Rick Perry and Sarah Palin. At press time, Palin’s intentions remain unknown, but she’s left the impression that that could change at any moment.

She came to New Hampshire briefly on the same day as Romney’s official announcement and most recently visited both Iowa and New Hampshire in the same weekend. But she seems to enjoy dangling the possibility more than committing to the reality.

“There’s no question Sarah Palin has the ability to influence the debate whether she is a candidate or not,” Horn said. “I suspect that’s her goal, to have influence over who is ultimately the nominee. … I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

But Palin as a candidate could have a little trouble in New Hampshire, where primaries are impacted by independent voters, Horn said. Palin is not particularly popular with independent voters.

The Perry explosion

Since the beginning of the race, Romney had been the presumptive frontrunner. His was a campaign on cruise control. Then Perry entered the race and knocked Romney out of the top spot in national polls in a matter of a few weeks.

“All of a sudden all he can see is taillights,” Scala said. “And it’s got a Perry sticker on the rear bumper.”
Romney had the early fundraising advantage, but Perry is considered a fundraising machine. Since 2001, reports the Houston Chronicle, Perry has raised more than $100 million for his gubernatorial campaign and another $50 million for GOP candidates as chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2007-2008. He is also from a state that is home to many deep-pocketed donors.

Romney has to take Perry seriously, Scala said. Perry’s fundraising prowess and larger-than-life persona make him a formidable foe. In Perry’s first debate last week, it became clear Romney’s team sees Perry’s book, Fed Up, as a potential weakness to exploit by painting Perry as extremist. Perry doesn’t seem to be wavering, reiterating in his first debate that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme.”

While Perry has ratcheted up the rhetoric, Horn said all the candidates seem to understand Social Security needs to be reformed in order to have it preserved.

Governor vs. Governor?

From a New Hampshire perspective, political analyst Dean Spiliotes said his sense was that the state is still Romney’s to lose. Spiliotes figured Perry would stabilize at least a little bit in the polls. Spiliotes saw it as a two-person race overall, probably, but wasn’t totally giving up on Bachmann. Pundits through Bachmann performed better at the debate on Monday, Sept. 12.

Cullen said there has been a rush to call it a two-person race.

“I don’t think voters view it that way at all,” Cullen said. “We’ve seen Michele Bachmann rise rapidly and she seems to be ... stalled ... Jon Huntsman had a very good debate the other night. If Bachmann is in fact stalled, we could start to see stories about Jon Huntsman rising. We’re still six months out from the primary. There’s a lot more action to come. That was just our first real look at Rick Perry. There’s a lot more to explore. This is a long way from settling.”

Story number one for Scala is whether or not Romney can hold his support in New Hampshire and win the first-in-the-nation primary going away.

“It’s kind of like, for Mitt in New Hampshire, it’s holding serve in tennis,” Scala said. “It doesn’t mean he’s going to win the match, but it certainly helps you .... [New Hampshire] is a must-win for sure. He can’t lose New Hampshire and win the nomination. But he can win New Hampshire and lose the nomination.”

Romney has been remarkably consistent in the amount of support he’s gotten in New Hampshire, dating back to 2008. He sticks right around 35-percent support. He fell just a few points shy of that in losing the 2008 primary to John McCain. Since 2008, he’s expanded his support to a little more than 35 percent in state polls. Romney is a well-known commodity in New Hampshire. He’s relatively well-liked here too, Scala said.

“And yet there he is at 35,” Scala said. “Can he hold that 35 percent? What are the chances there could be some slippage?”

Maybe Romney still has room to grow in New Hampshire — or maybe 35 percent or thereabouts is his ceiling, and that could be enough.

“For the other candidates, he’s sort of saying, ‘Come and get me. Here’s where I am. I’m not going anywhere one way or the other,’” Scala said, adding Romney is such a well-known candidate, he’s not going to sneak up on anybody.

In a multi-candidate primary, 35 percent isn’t bad. It’s not awesome either. Scala figured the Romney campaign would take it if they could guarantee Romney gets, say, 37 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. At 40 percent, he’d be extremely tough to beat, Scala said.

So the real question for Scala is whether Rick Perry can cut into that 35 percent in New Hampshire. He would already have a built-in advantage in Iowa and South Carolina over Romney because of how his politics play in those states.

Perry is known as uncompromising in his conservative views, both fiscally and socially, and that — specifically the socially conservative part — plays better in the deeply religious South and Midwest than in the Northeast.

Perry can to some extent divide the vote in New Hampshire. For New Hampshire voters who consider themselves very conservative — that is to say, that they’re both fiscally and socially conservative — Romney probably doesn’t appear to be that conservative. Romney is hurt here by his past in the more liberal Massachusetts legislature.

It’s difficult to know how big a problem “Romneycare” will be for primary voters or how big an issue other candidates will make it. Romney signed a healthcare law while governor of Massachusetts that is similar to the controversial national healthcare law Obama signed into law. The White House likes to point out how it based Obamacare on the Massachusetts law. Romney has stood by his support for the Massachusetts law, but said what fits for the Bay State is not a fit for the entire country. He has said he’d grant each state waivers to opt out of Obamacare.

Scala said particularly conservative New Hampshire voters might say Romney is somewhat conservative or moderately conservative. They might not agree Romney is one of them, Scala said.

“For those folks, the question is who is their champion,” Scala said.

The recent drama with the state GOP has seemingly divided the party in New Hampshire between “establishment” and newer, tea party Republicans. That divide may be real or imagined, but Cullen said whenever parties are out of power, there is more fragmentation. Though the GOP has big majorities in the state House, Senate, and Executive Council, Democrats still have the presidency and the governorship. That reality tends to lead to more division. The newer, liberty-minded folks in New Hampshire would be more likely to vote with someone like Ron Paul, or potentially Perry.

Perry, for all the bravado and early excitement around his bid, has just started, while Romney and the field have been at it for months and months. So far, Perry hasn’t shown off a lot of depth, Arnesen said.

“To be president, you have to have more than three answers,” Arnesen said. “The question is, can he be a quick study? Will he stumble?”

Cullen didn’t see the Perry-Romney choice as a broader question about the direction of the party. They are certainly different candidates, but Cullen didn’t see it as conservative versus moderate or establishment versus outsider.

While she said she’s struck by how passionate activists are about both Romney and Perry, Horn saw them as rather similar on paper. Both have strong records on job growth, on economic policy and on core issues of the party. Both carry obstacles as well: Romney’s ties to the Massachusetts health care law and Perry’s more liberal approach to immigration reform.

“[Those issues] could be problematic for Republicans with each of them,” Horn said.

Republicans in New Hampshire are more moderate to liberal Republicans, New England Rockefeller Republicans. Nationwide, Republicans are more conservative, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, in a previous interview.

Different ways to ‘win’

“A one-point squeaker for Romney is almost as bad as losing,” Scala said of the New Hampshire primary. He said the story coming out of the primary would be this: if Romney was weak in his own back yard, how is he going to compete in South Carolina and Florida?

New Hampshire, by itself, might not be the key to a national victory in this year’s primary. Arnesen assumed Romney would win, but if Perry is a reasonably close second, that’s as good as winning for him. Bill Clinton used his second-place finish in New Hampshire as if it were a win.

Romney has to hold serve in New Hampshire, that’s for sure, but it’s unclear what he does beyond that.
Other than Romney and Huntsman, who is trying to win New Hampshire — really? And who else even has a real shot at it? Well, Paul is certainly trying and he’s got a fairly established base of support in the Granite State, but Scala doesn’t expect Paul to be able to expand much on that 8- to 10-percent support he probably has locked up in New Hampshire. That being said, Paul has expanded his New Hampshire operation considerably this time around.

The reason for the increased efforts is that Paul thinks he can win. He has held the same views — on limited government, fiscal responsibility and distrust of the Federal Reserve — for more than 30 years. But the recent rise of the tea party, which essentially espouses those same views, and, more importantly, its influence in the 2010 election cycle show that voters are more receptive to his message.

Santorum is certainly trying but he probably never had a legitimate shot at winning New Hampshire, since he had little prior national name recognition and no obvious business leadership experience and is known more as a moral crusader. Gingrich, Cain and Bachmann don’t appear to be going for broke in New Hampshire.

It’s still too early to know what Perry’s plans are for the Granite State, though he has already made several visits. Bachmann, who narrowly beat Paul in the Ames Straw Poll in August, is all but ignoring New Hampshire. Cain and Gingrich also haven’t spent much time in New Hampshire. Gary Johnson, who has been left out of all the debates following the initial debate in South Carolina, has spent plenty of time in New Hampshire but hasn’t gained traction in polls.

There is an opportunity for Perry in the four debates this month to showcase himself. Most pundits seemed to think Perry did well enough in the debate Wednesday, Sept. 7. He took a lot of hits but he fired back.  Perry took more hits in the debate this Monday. His opponents kept him on the defensive.

Cullen said Perry probably made a good first impression on voters with his initial debate performance, though he said Perry faded badly in the second half of the debate. All the questions he answered early on were predictable and were things he could have anticipated and had answers prepared for — and he was ready, Cullen said.

“It’s those second round and follow-ups on things like Social Security that are much more telling and much more interesting,” Cullen said. “I used to say he’s completely untested. Now I’d say he’s largely untested.”
Say Perry impresses people and say the Republican electorate in New Hampshire, which is more moderate than the national GOP electorate, decides, at least in part, that it wants a proud, outspoken conservative, someone with “no ifs, ands or buts?” Scala said. If that sentiment catches fire, that could be trouble for Romney.

If Perry wins Iowa and all of a sudden he has a wave of momentum going into the New Hampshire primary, that could turn it into a one-on-one contest between Perry and Romney. That’s bad for Romney. He wants it to be him versus the field. If Perry wins Iowa going away, it’s pretty much over for Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich, and Cain. Paul hangs in there. But then it’s Romney, Paul, and Perry, the guy with all the momentum, Scala said.

Perry could mount a serious challenge in New Hampshire, but maybe the strategy for other candidates, specifically a social and religious conservative like Perry, is to garner tea party support and win Iowa and South Carolina and in effect discount New Hampshire, while boxing in Romney, Spiliotes said.
But with few other candidates really trying to tap into voters in New Hampshire, there might just be an opening for Perry to put together a serious run in the Granite State and make it difficult for Romney.
“There’s potentially a lot of voters out there for someone like him,” Scala said.

The Paul factor

Paul could be a spoiler. He’s got an established base of support and he’ll need to expand his appeal beyond that to really compete. Paul is not really the type of candidate who would be someone’s second choice — voters either love him or they’d never consider voting for him, Scala said. That’s the opposite of Romney, who could more easily be someone’s second choice. If Paul can expand his support in New Hampshire, that probably hurts Perry and helps Romney.

“He’s basically the same every four years,” Spiliotes said of Ron Paul. “He has very passionate supporters, but not a lot of potential for extending his reach as a candidate.”

But Cullen didn’t see Paul really trying to expand his support beyond his base. Paul and his libertarian tendencies play well in New Hampshire, where there is a definitive libertarian streak. Cullen figured about 3 percent of Republicans in New Hampshire were libertarian-leaning. He expects Paul to get about 10 percent of the vote in New Hampshire.

“I don’t know if he’s incapable of it or he just doesn’t care,” Cullen said. “His appeal is what it is. It’s not going to grow from there....”

Still, Spiliotes said Paul’s policy positions are more central to the debate now than they were in his previous runs for president.

“Certainly, I think he’s a passionate voice in the discourse, but I don’t think anybody thinks he’s the nominee,” Spiliotes said.

Just tuning in

Part of what made Pawlenty’s decision to bow out so confounding was that most of the electorate wasn’t even close to deciding who they would vote for. Most people aren’t thinking politics prior to Labor Day. Pawlenty’s finances all but forced him to get out. But there is precedent for candidates to surge in the polls after the unofficial end of summer.

“I don’t think you ever underestimate the volatility of the New Hampshire electorate in a primary,” Scala said. “I’ve learned that. I was schooled on that in 2008. Up to the last minute, there was a lot of volatility.”

Many of the polls indicate large percentages of people are undecided. And at this point, why should people have made up their minds, Scala asked. That’s why there is a window for someone like Huntsman. There is still time for things to develop, Scala said.

Huntsman believes that. In an interview with the Hippo, he said if national polls mattered, we’d be in the middle of a Fred Thompson presidency right now. Huntsman isn’t alone in his optimism. At a headquarters opening in New Hampshire, Rick Santorum said he doesn’t look at the polls and is instead focused on building a solid foundation with voters.

Jon Huntsman may be somewhat of a wild card now — a long shot wild card at that. He seems to be banking on the idea that voters haven’t started paying attention yet. His politics should play well in New Hampshire, as he appeals to the same voter base as Romney. He has spent considerable time in New Hampshire, but he also hasn’t picked up much in the way of support. If he does start to climb up the ranks, that probably means he’s taking votes from Romney, which could be a problem for the former Massachusetts governor.

Huntsman recently fired his New Hampshire campaign manager, Ethan Eilon, and replaced him with Sarah Crawford Stewart, who was previously running Pawlenty’s now defunct campaign. Huntsman could begin to build support by going after more moderate and independent votes. He could appeal to the type of Republican voter who isn’t happy with the GOP’s stance on science-related issues, like global warming. But Huntsman, coming off a stint as ambassador to China, had little name recognition in New Hampshire, and his campaign had trouble getting its act together, compared to Romney.

“He just hasn’t proven to be a particularly energizing candidate on the stump,” Spiliotes said.

The ties to the Obama administration hurt him, but it also might just be the wrong time for his ideological complexion, which is decidedly more moderate than most of the other candidates’. Some reports hinted that Huntsman might be able to make a stronger bid as an independent candidate.

Huntsman has put in the ground work in New Hampshire, attending house parties, holding speaking engagements and pounding the pavement to meet voters. Campaign officials say Huntsman would visit New Hampshire at least every two weeks throughout the fall.

“He’s trying; it just doesn’t seem to be happening for him,” Spiliotes said.

Huntsman wasn’t the only candidate who descended on Pawlenty’s leftovers. Santorum’s New Hampshire campaign has moved into Pawlenty’s former headquarters in Bedford. His campaign is led by field director Nick Pappas, who worked on former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s campaign in 2008. Such campaign cross-pollination is common in New Hampshire, as the state’s first-in-the-nation status has allowed work for many seasoned staffers. Crawford Stewart was also involved in McCain’s successful primary runs in 2000 and 2008 and David Carney, a long time Republican strategist, began this cycle attached to the Gingrich campaign but is now working as the chief national strategist for Perry.

While Huntsman is hoping for a surge this fall, Bachmann picked a bad time to have an unremarkable debate performance last week. After the August debate, Arnesen said it was over for Pawlenty. After last week’s debate, she said it was over for Bachmann.

“Someone forgot to tell her what do to,” Arnesen said. “She had to strike out at Rick Perry, at least wound him slightly. She needed to focus on him. She failed to do it. She failed to recognize her job.”

Instead, it became clear Romney would try to cultivate support among moderate, undeclared and independent voters, while Perry would be the “scrapper” who would appeal to the Republican base.

Romney seems to be looking ahead to the general election, while Perry isn’t worrying about that right now.

“The base that actually votes in the primary, what they’re looking for, they’re not looking for facts, someone who answers questions ... they want someone who stokes their anger. Perry does a really good job of stoking people’s anger,” Arnesen said.

Anybody else?
With Perry taking off as he has since entering, it’s probably unlikely that GOP officials would push for another big-name candidate to get into the race, like trying again with Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels.

Scala isn’t a big believer in some dream ticket emerging this fall. He figured it was possible Sarah Palin or Rudy Giuliani could jump in, but he’d give both long odds if they did.

“I don’t see the fire in the belly of either of them,” Scala said. “They’ve both been too ambivalent about the whole thing.”

Palin did make a visit to New Hampshire last week as part of a rally with the Tea Party Express. She’s left mixed signals wherever she’s gone.

“Maybe she’ll run. It would certainly change the dynamics,” Spiliotes said. “But I think she’s in a weaker position now than she once was.”

Giuliani, who by most accounts ran a poor campaign last time around, though he led national polls for a good chunk of the race, has hinted he’ll toss his hat into the ring. Time is running out on him as well.

“There’s no reason to think his appeal has changed,” Spiliotes said of Giuliani.

Former New York governor George Pataki acted like he’d run but decided against it.

The view from the White House

Spiliotes is trying to figure out what Obama’s strategy is. Is he trying to cut some kind of compromise with congressional Republicans so he can run on some additional legislative accomplishments, or is his strategy to try to paint Republicans as obstructionist? He floated the obstructionist argument during his bus tour a few weeks ago.

Obama isn’t likely to acknowledge any of his potential opponents at this point, as it could legitimize candidates if he mentions them by name. But his team probably has preferences.

Obama would love to run against Bachmann, and he’d probably rather paint Perry as a caricature of the second coming of George Bush than face off against Romney. Either Perry or Bachmann would provide Obama with an opportunity to pick off moderate voters. It would be more difficult to do that with Romney as the nominee.

The very thing that hurts Romney in the GOP primary is what helps him in a general election. The centrist Romney would appeal to many of the independent and moderate voters who picked Obama last time around.

Obama would much prefer a general election date with Perry. Obama would have a greater opportunity to make a contrast with him, and to paint him as extremist. Running against Perry wouldn’t just open up moderate voters; it might energize Obama’s own base, Scala said.

“Even though the base isn’t all that happy with [Obama], the prospect of Governor Perry scares the heck out of them...,” Scala said.

Obama’s approval numbers in New Hampshire are poor at the moment. If it ends up being Perry versus Obama, that’s an interesting match-up in New Hampshire and nationally.

“If you’re a New Hampshire voter and you’re unhappy with Obama, are you going to vote for a socially conservative Texan?” Scala said.

On the other hand, if it’s Romney versus Obama, the choice for an unhappy New Hampshire voter is easy: Romney.

This contrast shows why many believe the winner of the 2012 Republican primary will shape the direction of the party.

Of course, Obama is figuring he’ll pull off the victory, but he’ll be threading the electoral needle this time around, Scala said, meaning it’s going to be close, rather than the surge in support he experienced in 2008.

If the economy doesn’t improve, it will be like an anchor weighing down Obama.

The president understands this. That is why he unveiled his own jobs bill in a speech in front of both houses of Congress. The bill, which Obama urged Congress to pass immediately, was well-received by local Democrats.

“The message from the people of New Hampshire has been clear,” said state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, in a statement. “They want action on jobs, and they want it now. The plan put forth by President Obama tonight [Sept. 8] would help small businesses grow, return money back to Granite State families and invest in our future to ensure we are creating good jobs.”

George Bruno, former state Democratic Party chairman and former ambassador to Belize, said Obama’s job plan was a bold move and from a Republican standpoint should be the beginning of a conversation. Bruno said the initiatives proposed by the president were thoughtful and wide-ranging and had prior support from Republicans.

Similar reactions have given Obama renewed hope.

Every politician, certainly every president, has this “overwhelming faith in himself,” Scala said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. It takes someone with a strong ego to run for office and to take all the stuff that comes with it.”

So while the economic news has been bad, approval ratings are dipping and GOP candidates are piling on, “I suspect he [Obama] has this faith that he can pull this off and win a second term,” Scala said.

His campaign has to have been hoping that the economy was going to be thriving as it was at the end of President Ronald Reagan’s first term. Instead, it looks like the economy will have improved marginally, at best. If the unemployment rate is closer to 9 percent than 8 percent and if the economy overall isn’t much better, it will be difficult for Obama to look people in the eye and tell them they are better off than they were four years ago. If Obama can’t say that, he’s got to move on to plan B, which is probably to acknowledge that people aren’t better off but assert that Obama is still better than the Republican, Scala said.

“Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are kind of the same,” Arnesen said. “They’re slick and smooth, slow to anger, not very passionate.... Rick Perry is kind of a pistol. He’s not even going to answer your question. He’ll say whatever comes into his head. The question is how frightened voters are in 2012.”

If people are so mad that they want everything painted in black and white, Perry might be the more formidable challenge, Arnesen suggested. That’s assuming the Texan doesn’t stumble.

But while the subtle differences between Perry and Romney are apparent to Republicans, for many Democrats there isn’t much of a difference.

Former Manchester Mayor Bob Baines disagreed. He said there was no question that that the White House would love to have Gov. Perry as Obama’s opponent. Baines also said he doesn’t see a path to the nomination for Romney. He said his moderate views may not win over primary voters, even though they’d make him more likely to win a general election.

“The Republicans continue to run to the right to please the tea party,” said Holly Shuman, communications director at the New Hampshire Democratic Party. She said despite their differences in rhetoric, Romney’s and Perry’s stances on issues like Social Security are equally toxic and are in contrast with New Hampshire voters’.

“In a general election, President Obama would be able to make clear contrasts regardless of his opponent,” she said.

Bruno echoed the caution of some Republican strategists, saying that it seems there is a new Republican candidate every few weeks. He said while many are trying to make it a two-person race between Perry and Romney, the same people were saying the same things weeks earlier but it was Romney and Bachmann instead. So for now, Democrats aren’t saying much about who’d they prefer to see in a general election.

“From a Democratic standpoint we are still in wait-and-see mode,” Bruno said.


Playing a guessing game

What about this scenario: Bachmann wins Iowa just like she won the Ames Straw Poll last month, Romney wins New Hampshire and Perry wins South Carolina. Each would be playing to his respective base. The media has characterized the race recently as a two-person race between Romney and Perry, but if Bachmann were to re-surge, the scenario of those three candidates taking each of those states is at least plausible, Spiliotes said.

And where would things go from there? If Bachmann is still in the thick of things at that point, Romney is probably cautiously happy, as he could hope she and Perry split the vote in places like Florida and Nevada, leaving Romney a path to victory.

There could be a social, religious conservative vote split, which would benefit Romney. Spiliotes said if that happens, he figured most voters would choose Perry over Bachmann. As time goes on, this scenario seems more unlikely. The day after the Sept. 7 debate, most newspapers and blogs said Bachmann failed to save her candidacy. Those negative views coupled with a “planned restructuring strategy” of her campaign (campaign manager Ed Rollins is now only a senior adviser) seem to show a campaign in free fall. Then again, it is still early, especially with Bachmann’s stonger debate performance this week.

More likely, Romney would need to take states like Michigan, California, Massachusetts, New York and of course New Hampshire. Perry would probably do well in the South. Romney at a tea party express event earlier this month might seem odd but Romney would benefit from garnering a few tea party voters. In the same way, Perry would probably try to pick off more establishment, moderate GOP voters. Spiliotes was wondering how well Perry could make the transition from his conservative platform into a potentially winning coalition as the nominee.

“Rick Perry never imagined himself in a general election,” Arnesen said. “He’s pictured himself in this primary. That’s the extent of the Perry dream ... Romney sees himself in the executive office.”

All of that is still a long way away and between now and then anything can happen. Remember, Bill Clinton didn’t even enter the 1992 primary until October. That shows just how long the process is. And the candidates certainly know it but respect the challenge. Along the way, the field and the standings are constantly evolving.

“The one thing we know in New Hampshire politics: 24 hours is a lifetime,” Horn said. “The truth is anything could happen at this point.”

“You push yourself to the limits,” Huntsman said during an interview with the Hippo on Friday, Sept. 2. “I don’t think there’s a more grueling or more introspective undertaking than running for president.... This teaches you everything you need to know about yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, your ability to carry on, you ability to deploy patience, when you’d like to stand up and walk out and leave the umpteenth discussion on illegal immigration. It’s also the refiner’s fire. It’s there for a purpose. Through it all you’re strengthened, you’re weathered. You develop a thick skin that serves you well as president.”

And New Hampshire gets a front-row seat.
 






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