Giuliani, Romney Blasting Through Granite State

Republican presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are campaigning this week in New Hampshire, one of the first states to cast ballots. Giuliani is leading in national polls while Romney is doing well in straw polls.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Voters in New Hampshire still don't know when their parties' primaries will be. And while there is a clear frontrunner on the Democratic side in New Hampshire, the Republican race for president is very fluid.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson went to the Granite State to look at two of the leading Republican candidates: Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.

MARA LIASSON: For weeks, these two northeastern Republicans have been arguing about who is more conservative. In Manchester on Monday, Mitt Romney held one of his Ask Mitt Anything town hall meetings.

Wearing a tie but no jacket, he ticks off what's at stake in November 2008. His presentation is as crisp as his starched white shirt.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican Presidential Candidate): I think Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards would take America on a sharp left turn, with big government and big taxes and Big Brother running your lives. And I think the other course - if you will, the house that Ronald Reagan built, which is based upon personal responsibilities, individual liberties, strong families - that is the course that has the most promise for America's future.

LIASSON: Romney started out in New Hampshire at about three percent in the polls, surprisingly low for the governor of neighboring Massachusetts. But he's built a campaign here with businesslike efficiency, investing millions of dollars in TV ads and a voter targeting operation. Now it's paying off. He has a small lead in the polls and on Monday he received a key endorsement from the senior Republican in the state, Senator Judd Gregg.

But Rudy Giuliani is running a very strong second, and many voters here have found themselves trying to decide between the two. For Susan Miller, who came to see Romney in Manchester, it came down to personal issues.

Ms. SUSAN MILLER (Voter): I think all of us have a sense that Rudy Giuliani did a great job during 9/11. The issue of his three marriages is for me, who's been married for 36 years, that's an issue with me. I do like Mitt. I think he's an honest man. I think he's committed to his family.

Unidentified Woman: Mayor, we have time for one more question.

LIASSON: Just down the road in Londonderry, Rudy Giuliani also held a town hall on Monday, where he got an opportunity to showcase his newly minted conservative approach to an issue where as mayor of New York he was once more liberal.

Mr. GIULIANI: Yes, sir.

Mr. CHARLIE McCULLER(ph): As an avid hunter (unintelligible) I was curious what your stand on gun control is.

Mr. GIULIANI: Let me ask you three questions. How old are you?

Mr. McCULLER:: Forty-three.

Mr. GIULIANI: Okay. Do you have a criminal record?

Mr. McCULLER:: No, sir.

Mr. GIULIANI: A record of mental history?

Mr. McCULLER:: No, sir.

Mr. GIULIANI: Okay. You're okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIULIANI: Well, that's a kind of a joke but it basically makes the point that I want to make. The Second Amendment of the Constitution gives you the right to bear and carry arms. The government can only interfere with that for very limited reasons that courts have to approve. If they go too far, it's unconstitutional.

LIASSON: That was a good enough answer for Charlie McCuller, who said later he will vote for Giuliani. Others like retired military reservist Brad Thorpe(ph) of Goffstown are still torn. Thorpe describes himself as a social conservative and he says Romney has an edge with him there, but...

Mr. BRAD THORPE (U.S. Army, Retired): Sometimes Mitt comes away a little too polished, and Rudy is able to laugh and make fun of different - seems to be more earthy. I will consider maybe right up to the last minute one of these two guys based on who has the most favorables as far as beating her.

LIASSON: Her, of course, is Hillary Clinton - the Democratic candidate who's been casting such a big shadow over the Republican nominating contest.

Andy Smith, who conducts the Granite State Poll, says electability - as in who can beat Hillary - has become a key test of strength in the Republican race in New Hampshire.

Mr. ANDY SMITH (University of New Hampshire Survey Center): That's the biggest advantage that Giuliani has is he's seen right now as the most electable candidate. But that's also his weakest point, in that if he doesn't win in the early states, that electability argument is going to evaporate.

LIASSON: And that's what the Romney campaign is counting on. By focusing on the early states, it's using a strategy that's worked for Republicans in the past. Right now, Romney is trailing Giuliani in national polls. But, says Andy Smith, Romney's betting that will change overnight if he wins Iowa, where he currently has a big lead.

MR. SMITH: So if he can win in Iowa and then win in New Hampshire, those voters in South Carolina and Florida and the states after New Hampshire are going to say, wow, this Mitt Romney guy, he must - must be something to him; he's a winner.

LIASSON: Until recently, Giuliani was concentrating on states like Florida, which votes on January 29th, and the big states, like New York and California that vote on February 5th. But in an interview on Monday, he says he won't cede New Hampshire to Romney.

Mr. GIULIANI: Everything we've seen in New Hampshire through our campaigning is that we have as good a chance to win New Hampshire as anybody else. We think that some people have spent, as you know, a lot of money here - tremendous amounts of money. It has not put them into some kind of commanding lead. And we haven't spent any money here yet to speak of.

LIASSON: But Giuliani suggests that is changing. He will start advertising on television, and he has spent almost every day this week in New Hampshire. And both Romney and Giuliani will be looking over their shoulders at John McCain, the Republican who won here in 2000 and still has a strong base of support.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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