Lead GOP Presidential Hopefuls Covet Distinction The early primary voting schedule means candidates will try to distance themselves from rivals any way they can. GOP leaders Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are slinging more mud than previously. Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee gains strength and consolidates the Christian conservative vote.
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Lead GOP Presidential Hopefuls Covet Distinction

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Lead GOP Presidential Hopefuls Covet Distinction

Lead GOP Presidential Hopefuls Covet Distinction

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This is the day that Republican presidential candidates throw themselves before the Internet. They'll take questions sent in via YouTube. Democrats already did this earlier in the year and some of the questions came from the likes of a snowman or the ghost of Richard Nixon. We are just more than a month now from the start of voting in Iowa and New Hampshire. And this morning we'll look at how some of the Republican candidates are making the most of the time they have left.

In a moment, our second tier candidate became a contender. First, two leading Republican candidates have spent recent days throwing charges at each other. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani each suggest the other is weak on key conservative issues like taxes and spending. So they're each saying they're different from the other but in similar ways.

Republican political consultant Mike Murphy has worked for Romney in the past and is tracking both candidates.

Welcome back to the program.

Mr. MIKE MURPHY (Republican Political Consultant): Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Why would these two go after each other?

Mr. MURPHY: Well, we're getting close enough to the real deal, the actual election, where it starts to become at the top tier a zero-some game. You want to push your opponent down or to move up, and I think one of the features of the Republican primary this year, interestingly enough, all the candidates have a proverbial glass jaw. Each has an issue or two they're pretty weak on.

Rudy is actually more liberal than he says he is. Mitt Romney's changed some positions. Fred Thompson has kind of run a lackluster campaign. Everybody is little vulnerable. And now that we're not that far away - only about 35, 36 days - it's time for them to start throwing some elbows here. The stakes are high and they're acting accordingly.

INSKEEP: Do Giuliani and Romney help each other in some way by focusing on each other almost exclusively?

Mr. MURPHY: Well, I think it's a simpler race if it actually became only a two-way race. Although I think there are enough other wildcards in the campaign. John McCain, perhaps Mike Huckabee, that - I'm not sure that's what'll happen.

The real thing they're both looking at though is the New Hampshire primary. Because if Romney comes out of the Iowa caucus where he's doing very well but has a strong challenge from Mike Huckabee on the Christian right, and is a little bit damaged into New Hampshire, I think the Rudy campaign and every other campaign - McCain, Thompson - think they might be able to upset him in New Hampshire. And I think the Romney campaign therefore would like to rough up Rudy a little bit in New Hampshire to prevent that from happening. And the Rudy campaign would like to start to grind on Romney now to prepare that to happen. So it's time for the gloves to drop and the game to get a little rougher.

INSKEEP: If you just look at Romney and Giuliani, who are similar in so many ways, is there a substantive way that they actually are different?

Mr. MURPHY: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I do think Romney is more conservative on most Republican issues, especially on social issues - pro-life, gay marriage, things like that - than Rudy Giuliani.

INSKEEP: More conservative now, we should say.

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah, now and even before. I mean the truth is Rudy was - being the Republican mayor of New York City really means you're a conservative Democrat. That's about as far as the spectrum goes. Giuliani is doing well though in the Republican primary because he has a brand, kind of, of strength, outside the normal litmus test issues. I often joke Rudy's campaign will be the first one with uniforms. It has that little edge of strength and order to it, which is attractive to a lot of people in the Republican primary who might ordinarily rule him out because of his more liberal positions on some social issues.

INSKEEP: And I suppose we should mention both of these guys are looked on as frontrunners in one way or another. But I do want to ask about another one of the candidates that you have mentioned - Mike Huckabee, who wasn't giving any serious chance but suddenly seems like he's going to do very well, at least in Iowa.

Mr. MURPHY: Well, yeah. A lot of us who are political professionals are a little less surprised because the structure of the Iowa Republican caucus is roughly a third of the vote is Christian conservative. And Huckabee is now consolidating that vote, which is almost a guaranteed ticket to the second or even first place. The problem is, New Hampshire is in many ways the opposite of Iowa. There aren't very many Christian conservative voters in New Hampshire.

So a candidate like Huckabee, who kind of can ride that wave in Iowa, may find himself gasping for air for his kind of voter in New Hampshire, leaving an opportunity for somebody else to try to be the Romney alternative.

INSKEEP: Has anybody taken the somewhat distressed Republican Party and excited them?

Mr. MURPHY: Hillary Clinton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MUPRHY: That's the great irony. Never have the Democrats been in a better theoretical position to do well in the presidency and they seemed to want to nominate, at least their elites, a candidate who is like a set of electric jumper cables on the Republican Party. Though I personally think she's ultimately going to lose the nomination to Obama, but I'm one of very few who think that.

INSKEEP: Mike Murphy is a Republican political consultant who has worked both with Mitt Romney and with John McCain in the past.

Thanks very much.

Mr. MURPHY: Thank you. Great to be here.

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