What Issues Are Important In The N.H. Primary?

After months of campaigning and millions of dollars in TV ads, the first presidential primary is Tuesday in New Hampshire. Audie Cornish talks with NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson about what to expect when the results roll in.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

Once upon a time in political history, the New Hampshire primary was held in March. Imagine that. Candidates spent the winter all but living in New Hampshire. As other states started holding earlier primaries, the Granite State inched its contest up on the calendar. These days it has less of a monopoly on the campaigns. Still, the first in the nation primary has a special cache and it can make or break would-be presidents.

Joining us to talk about what we might expect from New Hampshire is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Hello, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hello, Audie.

CORNISH: We'll talk about the candidates, of course. But first, Mara, let's talk about issues. Is there any particular issue that has risen to the forefront in New Hampshire?

LIASSON: Well, this issue of what kind of capitalism is fair. This is the whole argument about Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital. And I think it's absolutely extraordinary that you would be having an argument inside the Republican Party about what kind of capitalism is fair and what kind isn't.

Newt Gingrich has, more articulately than any Democrat on the left, made the argument that someone who makes money while - tremendous amount of money for investors - while the company they invest in goes bankrupt, that's undermining capitalism; there's something wrong with that.

And I think after the Wall Street bailouts where people felt that the people who were at fault came out fine and the taxpayers were left on the hook shows you that that strikes a chord even in the pro-business, pro-corporate, pro-Wall Street Republican Party. And I think that's going to continue.

CORNISH: Is this an issue that's going to continue to be up for debate in the contests in South Carolina and Florida?

LIASSON: Well, I think so because the Super PAC supporting Gingrich has spent more than $3 million to buy airtime, to air ads about this issue. And I talked to a senior Romney adviser today, he said it's just as well this issue came up now. We've got two weeks to beat it back. And, yes, I think this is going to continue because Gingrich thinks this is the way to go after Romney. It's best to go after someone in their main argument.

This is what Romney says is the reason he should be president - his business experience. And, as Gingrich said today, he said the first thing you have to do was stop Romney. And that's what he's going to do and this is the issue he's going to try and do it with.

CORNISH: Mara, looking at this issue, something like this coming to the forefront in New Hampshire, what does it say to you about what the New Hampshire primary means to the modern Republican Party?

LIASSON: Well, I think that New Hampshire and Iowa are still really important. I don't know if you're suggesting that maybe it's time to do away with the New Hampshire primary. But I think retail campaigning is still important. Yes, candidates spent less time campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa, for that matter - fewer retail events. But at the end, there was the same intense campaigning in New Hampshire.

They talked to voters. They held press conferences. They exchanged charges and barbs. They had to defend themselves. Gaffs were made. So I think that kind of hothouse political environment is still really important for both parties.

CORNISH: Mara, in the minute we have left, let's talk a little bit about the candidates. Who has the most at stake tonight?

LIASSON: Well, other than Romney - who, of course, wants to go out of New Hampshire with a big win - I think Jon Huntsman has the most at stake. He has had a bit of a surge in New Hampshire. If that surge continues and he can come in second, I think that will vindicate his decision to spend so much time there. But it's hard to see what other state he can do well in after New Hampshire.

And I also think that for the conservative candidates who are running to be the alternative to Romney - Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum - how they place in New Hampshire is very, very important for them.

CORNISH: And, of course, Ron Paul is in the race for second place in New Hampshire. Do we expect him to be competitive in the next contest, no matter how he does tonight?

LIASSON: Well, he is running fourth in the polls in South Carolina and Florida. He said he's going to basically skip Florida. It's a winner-take-all primary, so he can't get delegates even if he places rather than wins. But I do think you're going to see him campaigning in caucus states where he does better, and a grassroots organization like the one he has the matters more. So I think he's not going to be as competitive in the next two, but it sounds like he's staying in for the long haul.

CORNISH: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie.

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