GOP Candidates Hope N.H. Debate Sets Them Apart

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The Republican presidential contenders gather in New Hampshire Monday evening for a debate. Their immediate goal will be to step out of the crowd as the most credible alternative to Mitt Romney — the front-runner in the state at this early stage.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Tonight, seven Republicans who hope to succeed President Obama will share a stage in New Hampshire. Mitt Romney plays the privileged and perilous role of frontrunner.

New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers reports.

JOSH ROGERS: Political professionals have truisms about debates. Pat Griffin has advised dozens of candidates, including both the first and second President Bush.

Mr. PAT GRIFFIN (Partner, Griffin Williams LLC): Number one, it's kind of like the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. Get through the debate, don't stumble, don't make a mistake.

ROGERS: For Mitt Romney, who's led every poll in New Hampshire since 2009, tonight's mission is straightforward - look presidential and...

Mr. MIKE DENNEHY (Co-Founder, Dennehy and Bouley LLC; Republican Strategist): Stick to the issues where you're strong, stick to business issues, to the economy, to jobs and be smart about your defense of health care. And that's it.

RODGERS: That advice comes from Mike Dennehy. He helped steer John McCain to victory in the 2000 and 2008 New Hampshire primaries. Dennehy says Mitt Romney's name ID and position in the polls means he can focus almost exclusively on President Obama.

But for everybody else, he says, this night needs to be about pulling themselves clear of the conservative pack.

Mr. DENNEHY: The bottom line is, we are entering the summer, and candidates need to start moving and differentiating themselves from each other.

ROGERS: Which is easier to do if people know who you are. Just ask former Minnesota governor, Tim Pawlenty. Despite more than a dozen trips to New Hampshire, he's still polling in the single digits.

Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (Former Republican Governor, Minnesota): When they ask people in these polls, you know, would you vote for X or Pawlenty, half the people being asked don't even know who I am. So we have to first make sure that I introduce myself to voters and then get their support.

ROGERS: But for other candidates, it's not name recognition so much as negative associations that come with the name. Newt Gingrich hopes this debate will help him re-launch a campaign that's reeling from the resignations of all his top staff.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): You know my goal is going to be to say something directly to the American people, not to debate my colleagues, and frankly, not particularly to deal with whatever the news media wants to get into.

ROGERS: And Gingrich won't be the only GOP candidate hopeful who needs some political rebranding. Republican strategist Pat Griffin says much of the field consists of niche candidates.

Mr. GRIFFIN: Fundamentally, we've got a group of candidates who appeal to specific parts of the party, very few of whom can attract independent voters, which they will need in a general election but they will also need to win the New Hampshire primary.

ROGERS: Ron Paul, for instance, enjoys die-hard support from Libertarian-minded voters. Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann each inspire populist Tea Party voters. Rick Santorum does well with social conservatives, but so do several others.

Any one candidate could have a standout debate performance with just a few memorable one-liners. That could shift or consolidate existing pockets of support or attract some new donors with deep pockets of another kind.

GOP consultant Mike Dennehy says that's a prerequisite for any candidate who hopes to emerge as a Romney alternative.

Mr. DENNEHY: Candidates mired in single digits right now, they need to raise money. And they're not going to be able to raise money if they don't show movement in the polls.

ROGERS: Beyond a bump in the polls, a strong night could also serve another purpose. It would send a message to possible candidates who won't be on stage — people like Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, and Texas Governor Rick Perry - that it's already too late to get in the game.

But as UNH political scientist Dante Scala notes, it's also possible, perhaps even probable, that this debate changes little.

Professor DANTE SCALA (Department of Political Science, University of New Hampshire): For the volume of words expended on them, these early debates rarely amount to anything resembling a decisive fork in the road.

ROGERS: We'll find out tonight at 8 o'clock Eastern, when this election's first debate in the state that holds the first primary gets underway. It will be broadcast live on CNN.

For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord, New Hampshire.

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