Candidates Make Final N.H. Push

On the eve of the nation's first primary, Farai Chideya talks with NPR Washington Editor Ron Elving about Barack Obama's lead in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton's fight to hang on, and the two-man race between Republicans Mitt Romney and John McCain.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

The nation's first primary is tomorrow in New Hampshire. It's a full-on fight between those who won in Iowa - Obama and Huckabee - and the other fierce contenders for their parties' nominations.

Here to flash things out a bit, we've got Ron Elving. He is NPR's senior Washington editor. Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING: Hello, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So what…

ELVING: Good to be with you.

CHIDEYA: It's great to have you on. What's going on in New Hampshire today?

ELVING: New Hampshire today is unseasonably warm. It has a gray overcast and it has a lot of candidates campaigning as though their lives depended on it. And we have, I think, a highly emotionally charged situation on the Democratic side, where the crowds following Obama around the state are not only were setting records, but they are also reaching extraordinarily high peaks of emotionality. In some of these events, the candidate is clearly energized by these. It's really driving him to new heights of oratory.

At the same time, you have an almost tragic sense around the Clinton campaign where the sudden demotion of the previous frontrunner has clearly had a huge impact on the campaigners around her, her staff, her longtime loyalists, her family, which has been traveling with her, of course - Chelsea and former president Bill Clinton.

And today, just about an hour ago, at her event, Senator Clinton actually seem to begin to weep at one point when she was imploring her supporters to stay with her, imploring people to compare her qualifications for office with those of Senator Obama and really bringing this to a very personal degree of importance to herself and to her supporters.

So this has really been quite an emotional morning in the New Hampshire campaign with the first votes to be cast tomorrow morning.

CHIDEYA: That sounds incredibly dramatic. What other tones and textures have you found in New Hampshire in terms of, for example, have senators - has Senator Obama and has Governor Huckabee, have they been crowing out their victory or what has been the tone of any of their engagements?

ELVING: Well, I think on the Republican side, you see quite a different dynamic playing out because the people who boosted Mike Huckabee to his victory in Iowa are largely absent here - that is to say the demographic group, the evangelical Christians who were so important to him in Iowa and who made up, in fact, a very large proportion of the entire Republican vote in Iowa and went very heavily for the governor.

There are not quite so many people who so identify themselves here in New Hampshire, and there has been some resentment among New Hampshire Republicans in general at the suggestion that they would like the Iowa Republicans flock to this Baptist minister from Arkansas. They haven't.

He has stayed right where he was in the polls - about 11, 12 percent in most of the polls - and that puts him right about on a par with libertarian Ron Paul and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and a little bit ahead of Fred Thompson. He is not a factor here.

The real competition on the Republican side is still between John McCain and Mitt Romney. Mitt, of course, being the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts; John McCain, being the guy who won the primary here by big, big numbers in 2000 over George W. Bush.

So those guys are a couple of big heavyweights in New Hampshire and they're going at it, a hammer and tong and it's seen as a place where John McCain needs to win or his campaign really will not launch itself in 2008.

CHIDEYA: You've mentioned some of the differences between Iowans and folks from New Hampshire - evangelical Christianity not so big in New Hampshire. Would you describe the New Hampshire conservatives as more fiscal conservatives?

ELVING: They have been traditionally more of a fiscal conservative. Of course, the state motto is live free or die. They have had historically low taxes, no income tax. The state has tried very hard to maintain a stand on its own image, the Granite State, the self-reliant, rock-ribbed New England image.

And that really has been accurate, especially in describing the Republican Party here in New Hampshire through many generations of its history. But it's changing, as more and more people move up here from the cities of New England, from New York, from Boston, and as more people from the rest of the country discover it and move here.

There really is a rather large retirement community here, so you run into more and more people who chose to come here in their later years. It's not the New Hampshire that our fathers and grandfathers knew politically or demographically or sociologically. So the Republican Party is changing, too, and we're seeing some of that play out in this confrontation.

CHIDEYA: Should we be looking ahead to more negative attacks? I'm thinking specifically - this weekend, ABC hosted Democrats and Republicans for debates, and there seem to be a lot more attacks. Should we expect more of that in the future?

ELVING: Sadly, yes. I think that this is a big part of our politics. Some people call politics war by other means. Sometimes it's going to get tough. Sometimes it's going to get nasty. Some of this will, of course, take the form of what are called comparison ads, where one candidate or the other lays out his or her positions and then says but that's not what my opponent says.

He says something else quite different. And we have that sort of invidious comparison. Other times, of course, it can be even more direct when someone questions the morals or questions the honesty or the integrity of his or her opponent. And I think we'll see more of that for - or done on both sides quite possibly.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ron, thanks for the update.

ELVING: My pleasure, Farai. Good to be with you.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor. And he joins us from our election studios in New Hampshire.

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