Will N.H. Debate Help Perry Polish Tarnished Star?
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Tonight, presidential candidates on the Republican side will be challenged to say what they would do about the economy. They gather in New Hampshire, where Bloomberg and the Washington Post are hosting a debate.
MONTAGNE: The Republican field looks different than just a few weeks ago. Sarah Palin is definitely out, and so is Chris Christie. Rick Perry is down. Mitt Romney is back up, or at least holding steady as Perry slips.
INSKEEP: Herman Cain appears to be coming in from the outside and we're going to talk about this and more with NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So all about the economy here.
LIASSON: All about the economy. We expect to hear a lot about the budget, about tax reform, entitlements. These are topics that we really haven't heard a lot about from these candidates. We know Romney has a 59 point plan. Perry has his record in Texas. But they haven't said much specifically about what they would do to solve the deficit, to reform the tax code, to reform entitlements, other than their spat over Social Security. And I'm sure they'll be asked to clarify their position, that even if a deficit reduction plan had 10 to one spending cuts to tax increases, they would not support it.
INSKEEP: So they've talked around the economy. They've criticized President Obama's economic record, but you're saying they might be challenged to say what specifically they would do. And I'm sure there's going to be a lot of attention on Rick Perry, who's still raising a lot of money but has faded in the polls. And that Social Security issue you mentioned was one thing that was used to drag him down a bit.
LIASSON: Yes. Look, this is a very important debate for Rick Perry. His slump in the polls is directly tied to his poor, disappointing debate performance in the last three debates. He has to do better tonight and his camp knows that. Apparently he's been doing real debate prep with a stand-in for Mitt Romney, so he should come ready to fight tonight.
INSKEEP: So now the focus tonight is on the economy, but that won't be the only thing on all voters' minds. And over the weekend there was a Values Voters Summit of conservative activists and a number of the candidates spoke there, and Mitt Romney's religion became an issue.
LIASSON: Yes, it did. This was a summit of conservative social issue activists, and evangelical Pastor Robert Jeffress, who's a supporter of Perry, said that Mormonism was a cult. This is something that Perry said he doesn't agree with, but this is a potential problem for Romney. Pastor Jeffress said that he was just expressing a widely held view among evangelicals that Mormonism is not a true Christian religion. But the question is, will this be a problem for Romney as it was four years ago in places like Iowa and South Carolina, where there are large concentrations of evangelical Republican voters? Or will the economy trump this - along with the fact that Romney simply is more familiar now? So this is something that we're watching.
INSKEEP: Does Romney having run for years and having an organization get an advantage because the primaries are now moving earlier and earlier?
LIASSON: Yes. I think he does. The Iowa Caucus is now going to be on January 3rd. Everything is being moved up. The whole calendar is telescoped. And I think what it means is that the candidate who is best prepared, has the most money and organization, is advantaged.
INSKEEP: Well, I want to ask another question about Romney here, Mara Liasson, because this is a guy that Republicans have indicated again and again that many of them just do not love. He's not really risen that much in the polls. He's had one person after another kind of rise to be his challenger. Now Herman Cain is rising in the polls. Could he be a serious contender here?
LIASSON: I think over the long-term, no. Herman Cain certainly has thrilled a lot of Republican voters. I don't think he has the money or organization to go the distance.
I do think you raise an important point about Mitt Romney, because no matter what has happened to Rick Perry's support - he's lost about half of it in the last couple of weeks - Romney's numbers haven't budged. He seems to have a ceiling of about 25 percent. And I think that right now what's happening is that all the other candidates are splitting what is essentially the anti-Romney vote. If that continues, then 25 or 30 percent is going to be fine for Romney to squeak through and win and be the last man standing. But if somebody - Rick Perry, for instance - can consolidate that conservative vote, he could be a real alternative to Romney. Perry has raised $17 million. That means he has the resources to fight. He just put up a new round of Web ads against Romney with a real populist message. The tag line is: Even the richest man can't buy back his past. So that's a little class warfare on the Republican side.
INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thanks very much.
LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.
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