Romney's Rivals Aim To Be Conservatives' Choice

Heading into the New Hampshire GOP presidential primary, Mitt Romney is ahead in the polls. But there's a race among Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, as they try to attract conservative voters in the state.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Manchester, New Hampshire.

We don't know exactly how today's New Hampshire primary will turn out. We do know that more contests come quickly. So this morning, we'll take a longer view of the Republican presidential race with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. She's with us here in Manchester.

Mara, welcome.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And let's go through what I guess you could call a leader board here. Mitt Romney has been on top. How has he been doing?

LIASSON: Well, his only rival here is expectations. He has a very big lead, anywhere from 33 to 41 percent. But in the latest tracking polls, he has dropped 10 points over the last week. But for him, a big victory would dispel the narrative that he's a 25 percent candidate. I think anything short of 30 percent would be disappointing.

INSKEEP: When you say 25 percent candidate, you mean this feeling among Republicans that he can only get so much support.

LIASSON: Right. And I think that's changing. Romney has also been facing something new: actual attacks from everyone. And they're not attacks that he's insufficiently conservative. But they're about his tenure at Bain Capital. His opponents say he looted companies, he laid off workers. Romney calls as an attack on free enterprise and says this is the kind of criticism he'd expect from the last, but not from Republicans.

But he has also been trying to answer these charges. He's saying I was afraid of getting pink slips, too. And his opponents have been having a field day with those comments. Rick Perry said Romney was worried about pink slips, about not having enough of them to hand out to workers he was laying off.

INSKEEP: So, in this time when people are concerned about jobs and angry at Wall Street, his opponents are trying to tag him with this label of being a greedy capitalist and so forth.

LIASSON: Very unusual attack coming from Republicans, but it is exactly the kind of thing that we do expect the Democrats to use against him in the general election.

INSKEEP: If he gets there. Now, Ron Paul is in second place as we go down this leader board. Where does he go from New Hampshire?

LIASSON: Well, he goes on to South Carolina but he has decided not to compete in Florida. Florida is very expensive state. It also is a winner-take-all state, so you can't get delegates for just coming in second. He has ruled out an Independent bid, which is something that's always asked about Ron Paul 'cause he has his own Libertarian base that might not vote Republican, if he's not on the ticket in November. But he is talking may be about wanting to exact some kind of platform changes at the convention.

INSKEEP: Several other candidates here are trying for a least a decent showing in New Hampshire and trying to extend this process. They don't want Romney to win right away. They're hoping eventually to be challenging Romney. What's going on with Jon Huntsman, with Newt Gingrich and with Rick Santorum?

LIASSON: Well, they're competing in what they call the conservative primary. One of them, they hope, will emerge as a conservative alternative to Romney. Conservatives have yet to coalesce around a single candidate. They might not ever do that.

For Rick Santorum, his Iowa surge appears to have tapered off here in New Hampshire. He's already looking to South Carolina. He took a detour there on Sunday to pick up the endorsement of Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative.

Jon Huntsman is the only candidate who has been going up in the polls in New Hampshire, but there's not a state coming up where he has a natural constituency.

INSKEEP: And we haven't mentioned Rick Perry. Of course, he stopped competing in New Hampshire. He was very low in the polls here. He'll try again elsewhere. But let me ask another question about Newt Gingrich. He has been especially fierce in his attacks on Mitt Romney and has the prominence to get attention for those attacks.

LIASSON: Yes, I think Newt is a bit of a free radical in this race. He wields an outsized influence. He is a national figure and, as you said, he commands attention. He's staying in this race because he thinks he is the best conservative alternative to Romney. And he started the attacks about Bain Capital.

He has a Super PAC that has made a 27-minute video, and they have bought $3.4 million of airtime in South Carolina. That's the biggest anti-Romney media buy, just about equal to what Romney Super PAC got dumped on Gingrich in Iowa.

INSKEEP: But given all these attacks on Mitt Romney, Mara Liasson, is it still possible that Romney could essentially sweep this thing?

LIASSON: Yes, it is. I think he's poised to do what no other non-incumbent Republican candidate has ever done, which is make a clean sweep of all four early contests - Iowa, New Hampshire - he's ahead of the polls in South Carolina and Florida.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And will be listening to you on NPR special coverage tonight, as we wait for New Hampshire results.

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