Mitt Romney Still The Front Runner After NH Debate

Tuesday night's GOP debate focused on the economy, and most analysts declared Mitt Romney the winner. After Texas Governor Rick Perry's stumbles in the previous debate, Romney's closest rival is now Herman Cain, the former pizza executive who proposed his 9-9-9 tax plan.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The president's job bill fails, or did it; the Massachusetts Senate race gets down to bare knuckles; and some numbers from last night's debate, 999, 666 and 59. It's Wednesday and time for a...

MITT ROMNEY: Oftentimes inadequate...

CONAN: ...edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

Senator BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Senator LLOYD BENTSON: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

President GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Political Junkie Ken Rudin is a little under the weather today but on the mend. So joining us to recap the week in politics is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Some new Senate entries in Wisconsin and Hawaii. Joe the Plumber wants to run for the House. A week after he bows out, Chris Christie backs Romney and blasts Perry.

Ron Paul wins another straw poll, but Christians, conservatives discredit it. In a few minutes we'll speak with the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, Fergus Cullen, about last night's GOP debate in Hanover and why the word inevitable started to pop up this week.

Later in the program, we'll follow up with Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times on prostate cancer and screening. But first, Ron Elving, nice to have you back on the program here in Studio 3A.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And the president's job bill, he's been out campaigning across the country for it and could not get 60 votes. In fact, he couldn't get anywhere close to 60 votes in the U.S. Senate.

ELVING: No, the most he got was 51, and that of course indicated that all the Republicans were voting against them(ph) , and they were not getting every Democratic vote and independent vote. They had hoped to get all 53, they got 51.

They really never expected they were going to get very many Republicans, but there was an apparent belief that under certain circumstances they might at least get a few and have some sort of shot at getting close to 60. It never happened and probably was never in the cards.

CONAN: And the idea was, the one change in the Senate was, as opposed to paying for it with taxes on people earning, families earning over $250,000 a year, the Bush tax cuts, this was a surtax on those making over a million dollars a year.

ELVING: Yes, they were looking for a 5 percent surtax on people making a million dollars or more a year, trying to really highlight the notion that this was a tax on the rich, the really rich, the new definition of millionaire, not somebody with a million, somebody who makes a million every year.

And that, they thought, would really highlight the contrast between the Democrats voting for that as a way to pay for this jobs bill and the Republicans all saying nope, half-a-trillion dollars in stimulus is not worth a new tax on millionaires.

And they got that, by and large, as all the Republicans did oppose it. Virtually all of the Democrats did support it, and that will give them what many people believe they wanted in the first place: a message. That's why they call it a messaging bill, a political tool, something they can take into the campaign trail with them.

CONAN: Interestingly, Charles Schumer, the Democrat from New York, called it a win-win for us: If they pass it, we win, we stimulate the economy. If they vote against it, we win because they're obstructionists. It was put somewhat differently by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, speaking to the media yesterday.

Representative ERIC CANTOR: Hopefully this is the end of the political games, and hopefully it will also mean that the White House and the president will stop, you know, going out there demanding an all-or-nothing approach, pass my bill or else.

CONAN: Eric Cantor protesting over gamesmanship and politics.

ELVING: Imagine that, gamesmanship and politics. Look, we are in a political season that is perhaps 14 months premature, and it's beginning perhaps 16, 18 months premature in its beginning. It's been going on most of this year. It's clearly going to go on all through the remainder of this Congress, right up to November of 2012, and that of course is angering many Americans.

Yes, they want to be voters, but they would like to be thought of as consumers of government services between elections. They would like to feel as though the politicians between elections were actually doing something. In this event, they are doing something, but what it is, is they are warring with each other with such perfect opposition to each other's initiatives that nothing ultimately gets done, no compromise.

CONAN: And interestingly, Eric Cantor, the majority leader, seems to have been dubbed the face of Republican obstructionism by his Democrat opponents.

ELVING: That's right, and he has to some degree volunteered for the task. Speaker Boehner would rather, as all speakers before him, play the role of the person who is above the entire House. He likes to see himself as the leader of the House, not just the Republicans. The truth of the matter, of course, that's always been something of a myth, something of a fiction.

And in Boehner's case, he's having a hard enough time just leading the Republicans. So he doesn't really need to be out there playing the partisan leader. That job has fallen to the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, who was quite eager to be seen as the leader of the new Republican spirit, the more conservative, doctrinaire, orthodox spirit within the Republican Party, including the Tea Party, and the people elected in 2010.

So he has gladly taken the role, for example, coming out, criticizing the protestors known as Occupy Wall Street, calling them a mob and so forth. He has been quite outspoken on a number of issues, and particularly in characterizing the motives of Democrats.

CONAN: Before we completely dismiss the Congress as do-nothing, we should note that trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, long bottled-up, negotiated first by the Bush administration, it looks like they're going through today.

ELVING: That's right. They've been sitting for several years. They've been held up in large part because of labor issues and things that could not be negotiated to eliminate some of the concerns of Democrats who did not want to support these trade agreements on the fear that they were going to be creating too much attraction for employers to move jobs overseas.

They wanted more retraining programs for people who did lose their jobs to foreign manufacture. So they finally got that through in the Senate. That has broken the logjam. We expect both the House and the Senate to approve these three trade agreements.

CONAN: Meanwhile, getting back to electoral politics, or straightforward electoral politics, if you will, Elizabeth Warren now running for United States Senate in Massachusetts, running for the Democratic nomination, was asked a relatively straightforward question at a Democratic debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: To help pay for a law school education, Scott Brown posed for Cosmo. How did you pay for your college education?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I kept my clothes on.

CONAN: And Senator Scott Brown fired right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

Senator SCOTT BROWN: I'm a conservative businessman.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Time and again the White House has pointed to Massachusetts law...

CONAN: And obviously that's the wrong cut. He was asked on radio station KZLX about Elizabeth Warren's comment. His reply was...

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

BROWN: Thank God...

CONAN: His reply was...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Thank God.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And so this - well, it's nice to see people having a sense of humor, at least for now. Nevertheless, this allows some to portray Elizabeth Warren as a bit of a prim elitist and Scott Brown as a sexist.

ELVING: The people that I told this story when it happened in the last several days, right after that debate last week, everyone I related this story to, their mouth hung open. They were quite taken aback that the senator had been quite so, shall we say, unbuttoned about his reaction on this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELVING: He was not hesitant about making a joke, and a sexist joke, I think most women would agree, at the expense of Elizabeth Warren. So we'll see what kind of a race this is going to be. Now, she does not have the nomination yet by any means. There's still several other candidates in the field.

It was an even larger field before she got in it, but since she entered, several other candidates have decided the dynamic has changed. She raised well over a million dollars in the last quarter, oh, excuse me, well over $3 million in the last quarter, $3.15 million. That was twice what Scott Brown raised during that same period of time.

Now, make no mistake, Scott Brown will be well-financed. He might be as well-financed as any Senate candidate in the country next year. So it's not a question of her outdoing him in that department. But she did show that she is going to be a serious contender in that department, despite her great unpopularity in the financial services community.

She was, of course, the person that President Obama wanted to be the director of his Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and she was not able to get a vote in the Senate because she was perceived as being too hostile to Wall Street and other banks.

So this is going to be a race that will have lots of money on both sides, but her fundraising ability is what's going to set her apart in the Democratic field. It's beginning to look as though there's no contest for the Democratic nomination.

CONAN: And one reason Scott Brown is not going to have trouble, well, ties to Wall Street, yes, but also a lot of Republicans feeling this race might tip control of the United States Senate. If they can hold on, that's the one race where Democrats think they might be able to pick one up.

But there's another race that could be crucial, in of all places Hawaii.

ELVING: Yes. Now, Hawaii has a very long history of Democrats in the Senate. Daniel Inouye, Daniel Akaka, Sparky Matsunaga, have pretty much held these seats virtually since - virtually since Hawaii was a state. And for the Republicans to be able to think about capturing one of those Senate seats in 2012 with Barack Obama on the ballot as a Hawaiian-born, as president, is pretty remarkable.

But they've got their ideal candidate, Linda Lingle, who was a two-term governor of Hawaii, quite popular there, and a Republican. She has just thrown her hat in. She is going to run for the Senate seat that is now being given up by Daniel Akaka, who is retiring after 21 years, 22 years by the time he retires, in the Senate.

CONAN: In the meantime, another Republican entrant into the primary for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin.

ELVING: Yes, and this is an interesting race. Jeff Fitzgerald, the Assembly speaker, who has been in the Assembly since 2000, was elected speaker by the new majority of Republicans who came in in 2010, and he had a lot to do with helping them. He was a little bit the Newt Gingrich, if you will, of the revolution in Wisconsin in 2010.

And he is the speaker of the Assembly that has been doing the bidding of Governor Scott Walker, and he has done this, and this is why it gets a little confusing for some people in thinking about the state legislature leadership in Madison, Wisconsin. He has been doing Scott Walker's agenda along with Scott Fitzgerald.

CONAN: His brother.

ELVING: His own brother. So we have two Scotts, we have two Fitzgeralds, and we have three guys. So the one who is running now for the Senate is Jeff Fitzgerald, and he is actually adding his name to a fairly distinguished list of people already running for the Senate on the Republican side in Wisconsin, including former four-time elected governor, four-time elected Governor Tommy Thompson, who is back, wants to run.

He's about 70 years old, but he's ready for yet another career, this time in the Senate, after having been in the cabinet and the governor of Wisconsin for all those years. And we also have Mark Neumann, a former congressman and somebody who is still a hero to people who remember the post-Reagan-era, if you will Gingrich-era, Republican revolution in Wisconsin in 1994.

CONAN: Conservative of the '80s, a conservative of the '90s and the conservative of the 2010s.

ELVING: Or of today, if you will, you know, the greatest hits of.

CONAN: In the meantime, we should note that interesting polls in the state of Virginia have George Allen and Tim Kaine, two former governors of that state, neck and neck for a Senate nomination, and Joe the Plumber wants to run as the Republican candidate to see - against whomever survives against Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur in Ohio.

ELVING: Fascinating, fascinating, new district here that's just been redrawn by the Ohio Republicans, who are in charge of the legislative map. They decided not to eliminate Dennis Kucinich entirely, just wipe out his district, since they had to deal with a couple that they had lost to reapportionment.

They decided instead to put him in a district with Marcy Kaptur. Now, these are two people in their mid-60s, they have been in politics for many, many, many decades, both of them. They call themselves friends, but they are about to have a true donnybrook over who is going to represent this district and who is going to take on Sam Wurzelbacher, Joe the Plumber.

CONAN: Ron Elving, our guest Political Junkie. Up next, the word inevitability crops up after last night's GOP debate in New Hampshire. If you vote in the Republican primaries, what was settled last night? 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Political junkie Ken Rudin out sick today, but it takes more than a flu bug to stop the show. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving is sitting in. Like most political junkies, still talking about last night's GOP debate in Hanover, New Hampshire.

With Herman Cain on the rise and Mitt Romney holding his own, it was a must-win for Texas Governor Rick Perry. His performance improved but maybe not enough to steal the show. Most analysts declared Mitt Romney the winner. He also landed a prized endorsement. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie endorsed Mitt Romney this week.

If you vote in the Republican primaries, what changed last night in Hanover, New Hampshire? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now, Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, now a columnist with the New Hampshire Union Leader. He's with us from his home in Dover. Nice to have you back with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

FERGUS CULLEN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And you were at the Bloomberg-Washington Post debate last night. Well, did Romney, as we just said, steal the limelight?

CULLEN: Sure, it was another very strong performance by Mitt Romney. And, you know, just because we've become used to this in this cycle doesn't take anything away from it. When you've got all the other candidates really trying to get into his market share, he took four questions from the seven other panelists last night, and that is very significant.

And I think he's doing very well in New Hampshire. Voters here have a solid, balanced impression of him. They know the good and the bad. He's got 75 percent favorable ratings in New Hampshire. That's very impressive.

CONAN: And a substantial lead in the opinion polls.

ELVING: That's right, and again, this is balanced. And we've seen other candidates come in when voters only know the good things about them, and they shoot up in the polls, Rick Perry being the classic example. And then when voters start to learn more about them, they come back down to Earth, and Rick Perry has really gone from being the frontrunner, even in New Hampshire, perhaps, to being just another candidate. And that's part of what we saw on the stage last night.

CONAN: Well, Rick Perry had to make a mark, a lot of people thought, last night. And, well, to be honest, I thought he did better.

CULLEN: He did, but, you know, is it victory when you don't hurt yourself? I mean, he really didn't speak very much. He did ask his question of Mitt Romney, and Mitt Romney I think very deftly turned it back on Rick Perry, bringing it back to the question of insured children in Texas. And, you know, so just because it was better than his previous three debates isn't really victory.

You know, the Perry campaign right now is trying to recruit, you know, that bungler, that uncommitted elected official, whether it's in an early state or somewhere else, and I think those recruitment conversations have gotten much more difficult over the last month.

So perhaps he may have (unintelligible) some of the worries that some voters may have had about him last night, but he also didn't put himself forward, either.

CONAN: Ron Elving, Rick Perry still has one resource to fall back on, and that is a well-funded war chest.

ELVING: That's right. He has ready money, as Phil Gramm, another Texan who ran for president liked to say: the best friend a presidential candidate can have. At the same time, we don't know yet how much of the money that he's raised he has already spent. We don't know how much of it will be available for the attack ads we assume he will start running as we get closer to the Iowa caucuses, which now we believe are going to be held on January 3, a date not too far in the future.

And of course the New Hampshire primary, following just one week after that. So we expect to see Rick Perry start to fire away at some of the other candidates, particularly obviously Mitt Romney, but he is in a situation now where he's not only lost momentum, he has lost half his support from where he was at mid-September to mid-October. He has fallen from around 30 percent on an average of the polls that were being taken in that week to something around 15 percent as an average of the polls being taken now.

CONAN: And Ron, you mentioned start taking shots at other candidates. Well, there is a new Rick Perry out on his website, and this is a direct shot at Mitt Romney, particularly on what everybody's now calling Romneycare.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

ROMNEY: Now, I'm a conservative businessman.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Time and again, the White House has pointed to Massachusetts law as the model for Obamacare.

President BARACK OBAMA: I agree with Mitt Romney. He's right.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Jimmy Carter is throwing his weight behind Mitt Romney.

ROMNEY: Those who follow the path that we pursued will find it's the best path.

I like mandates.

Read my book, I said no such thing. I stand by what I wrote.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Noting that the line about doing the same thing for everyone in the country has been deleted.

TIM RUSSERT: Why, if it's good for Massachusetts, and it's working in Massachusetts, wouldn't you apply it to the rest of the country?

ROMNEY: I would.

CONAN: And Fergus Cullen, those are bombs going off in the background there. Fergus Cullen, is that - obviously people in New Hampshire are pretty familiar with Mitt Romney's record and the results of the health care law there in Massachusetts. Is this going to cut much ice?

CULLEN: Yeah, I don't think it is because, you know, certainly there's a large number of voters who are looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney. I don't think there's any question about that. Some of them were looking at Bachmann. A lot of them have taken a look at Perry and still are, many of them now of course looking at Herman Cain.

So there is a market out there, but the Obama - excuse me, the Romney health care plan is well-known to primary voters, especially in a place like New Hampshire. It hasn't really hurt Romney at all, and I'm not sure that this kind of Web ad is going to change that, either.

A big difference between now and four years ago is the lack of paid political advertising in an early state like New Hampshire. Four years ago, Mitt Romney was up on statewide TV early in the year, trying to build his name recognition to match that of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. This time, basically no one's been up with any paid advertising to speak of, and that's a big change.

CONAN: Herman Cain, the winner of the Florida straw poll, doing well in the opinion polls, took his place on the stage last night for the first time as one of the top-tier candidates and took his shot at the frontrunner, Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

HERMAN CAIN: Can you name all 59 points in your 160-page plan, and does it satisfy that criteria of being simple, transparent, efficient, fair and neutral?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: Herman, I've had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems, and I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful but oftentimes inadequate.

CONAN: Oftentimes inadequate. Fergus Cullen, this is sort of dismissing the challenge.

CULLEN: Well, you know, I think Herman Cain did quite well last night. He exceeded my expectations, and he certainly mentioned 999 enough. I'm not sure it's going to hold up to scrutiny in the long run. Let's acknowledge that this represents a tax increase for a large number of Americans.

Rick Santorum last night I think did a good job trying to bring the audience into the discussion, pointing out that New Hampshire, for example, has no sales tax. Herman Cain's plan would put in a new nine percent sales tax. Again, Rick Santorum challenging the audience, New Hampshire has no state income tax. Of course, people pay federal income taxes, but pointing out, asking the audience how many of you think that the income tax will remain at nine percent.

So whether Herman Cain can deflect that kind of challenge to his economic plan in the coming months, I'm a little skeptical that it's going to hold up.

CONAN: Michele Bachmann among those who pointed that out, as well as she took a swipe at 999.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN: A sales tax can also lead to a value-added tax. So once you get a new revenue stream, you're never going to get rid of it.

CONAN: And that is going to - that could persuade some Republican voters, don't you think?

CULLEN: You know, people remember read my lips, no new taxes, and whether that worked out in the long run or not is another question. But this idea that every time you introduce a new revenue stream to Washington, a new tax, all that ends up happening is that it gets ratcheted up. I think that's going to resonate strongly with anti-tax primary voters.

CONAN: Ron Elving, are some of the others in the crowd, some of the others on the stage last night, are they in Hail Mary territory? Are they going to have to throw the long bomb?

ELVING: Yes, I don't see that there's much oxygen left around that table. After you start with Romney, you go through Perry, Cain, who takes up a lot of space in both a physical sense and in a psychic sense. He really is a strong presence. Then you have Michele Bachmann, the only woman, someone who is going to bring in a strong point of view and is going to express it in the most extreme terms possible whenever she can.

And there really isn't a need for a lot of other characters in this play, and yet we still have several others seated around the table. By the way, the moderators were a pretty strong presence last night, Karen Tumulty from the Washington Post and Julianna Goldman from Bloomberg, who were the people who were actually the two sponsors.

CONAN: Don't leave out Charlie Rose.

ELVING: And Charlie Rose, who is a very well-known person to all watchers of PBS and who was the moderator. So by the time you got down to Newt Gingrich, not a shy, unshrinking violet, or Rick Santorum or Ron Paul, who has a very strong following, maybe not as large as it thinks it is but a very strong, intense, loyal following around the country, and they were having a hard time getting any kind of attention.

CONAN: Enough of a following to win the straw poll at the Value Voters Summit, not someplace you'd think was Ron Paul territory.

ELVING: One of the more remarkable things that's happened in the last week is that Ron Paul, perhaps the last person you think would appeal to social conservatives and people who are religious, by and large religious conservatives, actually came out ahead, a plurality showing in the 30 percentiles. That was more than anybody else got at that particular event, which I think probably reflects dissatisfaction with the rest of the field as much as attraction to Ron Paul. This was not basically his crowd, but he did so well.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear from those of you who vote Republican. What was settled last night? James(ph) is on the line, James calling from Sacramento.

JAMES: Yeah, I have a question about Mitt Romney, and one question is: When he was a Mormon missionary in France, he refused to baptize the blacks and telling them, you know, they are seeds of the Cain, and they are not qualified to be baptized.

And then the second question I have about his - he was asked about the Brigham Young statement saying that the blacks are agents of devil, and would he condemn it, and he says no, he wouldn't.

CONAN: Well, the Mormon Church is very welcoming to Africans and African-Americans, so I'm not sure of the facts that you're citing here. I don't know them. But I would be surprised if the first was the case. But in any case, James, thanks very much for the phone call. And Ron, this raised a question that a lot of people are going to have, and indeed were raised at the Value Voters Summit. And this is something that came up from Texas Pastor Robert Jeffress, who endorsed Perry.

He introduced Rick Perry, obviously laudatory words, and then afterwards said that Mormonism is not a Christian religion. He regards it as a cult. And he repeated that on MSNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARDBALL WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS")

The Reverend ROBERT JEFFRESS: Mormonism has its own human leader, Joseph Smith. It has its own set of doctrines. It has its own religious book, "The Book of Mormon," in addition to the Bible. And so by that definition, it is a theological cult.

CONAN: And this - I think you would agree, Fergus Cullen, this is not going to be a big issue in New Hampshire.

CULLEN: It isn't. You know, New Hampshire is the second-least church-going state in the nation, behind only Vermont. You know, four years ago, we saw Mike Huckabee go from something like 45 percent in Iowa down to 11 percent in New Hampshire, not because he was of faith, but because he was identified principally as a candidate of faith who's running as an avowed evangelical. And that certainly wasn't a great selling point in New Hampshire. It certainly wouldn't hurt him.

New Hampshire has sent members of a bunch of faiths to Congress in recent years, including at least one Mormon, one person who happens to be Jewish. I can think of at least one Catholic, and I can think of at least a couple of Christians. So it certainly isn't going to hurt Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, anyway.

CONAN: But, Ron Elving, it might hurt in Iowa and South Carolina.

ELVING: There have been people who have subscribed to Reverend Jeffress' view of Mormonism as a cult who have said they would not vote for Mitt Romney because they would prefer to vote for an evangelical Christian. Now, at the same time, we've also heard a number of people who generally take that view of Mormonism - quite a negative view, if you will - separating it from mainstream Christianity, and yet who would then say while I will choose someone who's an evangelical Christian in the primary, when we get to November, I'm OK voting for Mitt Romney, the Mormon, against Barack Obama, the evangelical Christian - or if not evangelical Christian, the Protestant Christian who would be closer in his theology to the evangelicals.

So this is not necessarily the killer issue that some people have perceived it as in the past, but it is still an irritant at the very least and an obstacle for the Romney campaign or for the Huntsman campaign. He's also a Mormon. As this caller indicates, there are a number of stories. There are a number of canards, in many cases, and criticisms of the Mormon church that will attach themselves to anyone who is of that faith until we all get past it, until we all get used to there being Mormon candidates for president, as we've gotten used to Mormons in the Senate and everywhere else in politics.

CONAN: Fergus Cullen is with us. He's the former chair of the New Hampshire GOP, director of the Yankee Institute and a columnist with New Hampshire's Union Leader. Ken Rudin a little out - a little sick today. And sitting in for him is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. But there is another aspect of this, and that allows the candidate Mitt Romney, who - here again at the Value Voters Summit - to talk about something else other than his faith.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause.

CONAN: And that is about tolerance. It gives him something else to talk about, Ron.

ELVING: Yes. And it's an ideal that most all Americans share: toleration, religious toleration. So we have, on the one hand, the question of: What would you idealize in a presidential candidate? I would like somebody who agreed with me on the issues. I'd like somebody whose personality I found to be congenial. And I would like someone to be of exactly my same faith. That's pretty understandable that most voters would feel that way. And what Mitt Romney is saying is we can't let our preference for a particular faith stand in the way of how we choose on the issues and on all the other considerations. We shouldn't let that color our politics.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you, Fergus Cullen, up until now, at least on the national polls, Mitt Romney has been around 25 percent, as Rick Perry's support dropped. It went to other candidates, principally to Herman Cain, not to Mitt Romney. Nevertheless, some people are saying after last night's debate, Mitt Romney may be inevitable.

CULLEN: Well, I don't think that's likely to stay the case, and I definitely think that Romney is - you know, New Hampshire is his to lose at this point. But I do think that somebody will end up consolidating the not-Romney vote. I don't think the field will splinter. For one thing, I don't think the voters in New Hampshire want to see someone go wire-to-wire untested. I also don't think the media, national media will tolerate not having a race. I mean, just a couple weeks ago, they were saying it was already a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. I don't think anyone is saying that anymore.

But, you know, Romney is not looking beyond the primaries. He is determined, I think, to win the nomination in a way that maintains his ability to win a general election. We saw that last night, where he framed his economic plan in terms of how it benefits the middle class, saying that the rich will be all right without tax cuts. He also talked not just about repealing Obamacare, but replacing it with something else.

This is a message aimed at a general election audience. I do think, by the way, Jon Huntsman continues to have a real opportunity in New Hampshire. He is, I think, in the ideological sweet spot of the primary electorate, a group that gave 49 percent of the vote to John McCain eight years ago. John McCain received 37 percent in the primary against Mitt Romney a couple years ago. It wasn't necessarily driven by ideology. And of any of the candidates who have that opportunity to consolidate that not-Romney vote, I think Jon Huntsman probably has the best chance of any of them.

CONAN: And, Ron Elving, Mitt Romney also said he'd be willing to work with good Democrats to - on issues to - other candidates have pretty much put it the only good Democrat is a former Democrat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELVING: That's an usual thing to even say. The idea of working with Democrats is not popular among the Republicans who are running the show in Washington today. But I do think that Romney is issuing messages here to independent voters, to the people who are saying they don't like this Congress, and it is an overwhelming number. Nearly 90 percent are disapproving of Congress these days, and that's clearly, in part, a disapproval of the lack of compromise. And it is a message that is appealing all the way to November of 2012. That's what he has his mind set upon.

CONAN: Fergus Cullen, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

CULLEN: Thank you, Neal. Thank you, Ron.

CONAN: Former chair of the New Hampshire GOP, Fergus Cullen, now a columnist with the New Hampshire Union Leader. He was at last night's debate in Hanover. Ron Elving, thanks as always for pinch-hitting for Ken Rudin.

ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Up next, a big change for men over 40: The U.S. Preventive Services Taskforce recommends against a routine blood test for prostate cancer. Not all doctors or patients agree. We'll talk about what it means for you, coming up next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: