GOP Presidential Hopefuls Face Off At Dartmouth

Robert Siegel talks with NPR's Mara Liasson about Tuesday night's GOP presidential debate on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, picked up an important endorsement today. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who took himself out of contention just a week ago, now says that the former Massachusetts governor is the party's best bet to defeat President Obama next year.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: America cannot survive another four years of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is the man we need to lead America and we need him now. So that's why I'm here.

SIEGEL: Governor Christie delivered his endorsement in New Hampshire just hours before the fifth Republican debate in just two months.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is in New Hampshire to cover that debate and joins us now. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And how important is the Christie endorsement?

LIASSON: I think it's very important. Christie is a powerful surrogate. He's a powerful validator for Mitt Romney. Much of the Republican Party was pining for Christie and begging him to get into the race. And they thought he was a tell-it-like-it-is conservative reformer, and he's very authentic. I think Romney is hoping that some of that magic of Christie's can transfer to him.

SIEGEL: Mitt Romney addressed the issue of his Mormon faith today at that endorsement news conference. Tell us what he had to say.

LIASSON: Well, first, Christie slammed Rick Perry for what he said was conduct beneath the office of the presidency of the United States, because Perry had been introduced at a social issue voters' forum this weekend by an evangelical pastor that said we needed a genuine Christian in the race. Later, in remarks to reporters, this pastor said that Mormonism was a cult. That's a widely held belief among evangelicals.

Then Romney weighed in and called on Perry to repudiate the remarks of this pastor and to disassociate himself from him. We haven't heard any response on that point from the Perry campaign yet.

SIEGEL: Now, back to the Christie endorsement, it does emphasize that Governor Romney is the favorite of the Republican establishment. But Republican voters rarely give him more than a quarter of the vote in public opinion surveys. What does Romney actually have to do to break through with Republicans? And will Christie's endorsement help him do that?

LIASSON: Well, Christie's endorsement might help him. The question is does he have to do anything more or not? He does seem to have a ceiling of about 25 percent. You know, Rick Perry has lost about half of his support in the last couple of weeks, and none of it has gone to Mitt Romney. But if all the other candidates are splitting the conservative anti-Romney vote, 25 percent might be just enough for Mitt Romney to get the nomination.

But I do think this reminds of us of the old joke about Republicans: They don't fall in love, they fall in line. And that, I think, is what Romney is hoping that they'll do. They'll see that he's steady. He might not be the most exciting candidate. He might not share all of their conservative passions, but that he is the best guy to beat Barack Obama.

And for a while, it looked like the Republican Party was in a real Tea Party, anti-incumbent, anti-establishment mood. But now they might be reverting to type. And we've seen in the past that usually the guy who gets the nomination is the guy who came in second the last time around, and that's Mitt Romney.

SIEGEL: Tonight's debate is at Dartmouth in New Hampshire.

LIASSON: Yes.

SIEGEL: Who do you think has the most at stake?

LIASSON: Rick Perry has the most at stake. He's lost half of his support. He's turned in some pretty poor performances in the last couple of debates. He disappointed a lot of people who thought that he was going to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I think tonight and in next week's debate in Las Vegas, he really has a chance to show that he can perform.

The bar for him was very low in the beginning. I think it just got higher. We've heard that he is prepping for this debate very seriously. He's using a stand-in for Mitt Romney. So he is getting prepared to try to undo some of the damage that he did to himself with his previous performances.

SIEGEL: By implication, you're saying he wasn't doing that before, he wasn't preparing for the debates.

LIASSON: Not in this way. He hasn't debated very much in Texas. And running for president, as he's finding, is very, very different than running statewide, even in a big state like Texas. But apparently he is really working hard on his presentation for tonight.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Mara. Enjoy.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson in New Hampshire.

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