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NPR Correspondents Discuss N.H. Primary


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

It is primary day in New Hampshire, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney sounds hopeful.

MITT ROMNEY: I hope that you're going to be able to give me a bigger margin of victory than eight votes that I got in Iowa. Think we can do that? Yeah.


BLOCK: That's Romney speaking to a packed, middle-school gym last night. All of the state's polls will be closed by the end of this hour. And Romney has long been the clear front-runner.

We're going to spend the next few minutes on the heated battle between the other Republican candidates for second and third place. We'll hear from four of our reporters, all at various campaign headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire.

First up is NPR's Don Gonyea, who's covering the campaign of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. And Don, has Rick Santorum been able to build on the boost that he got out of Iowa, where he came eight votes shy of beating Mitt Romney?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Well, he got a lot more action here. He had bigger crowds; he had a lot of press following him around everywhere. He got a lot of coverage. There was a good bit of buzz, but it does not seem to have translated into any big, big boost in the polls. He's still in a battle for fourth place here; could be in fifth place. I mean, we'll see how it all works out tonight.

But again, it's a very different population here than Iowa. A lot of Christian conservatives there; that was his base. He talked a lot about social issues in Iowa. He talked about it here as well - he kept getting drawn into it by hecklers and questioners at town halls even though here, he would have rather talked about economic populism. But that was the story for him the past week.

BLOCK: And Don, presumably, Rick Santorum now heading into far more favorable territory in South Carolina - which votes next, after New Hampshire.

GONYEA: Exactly. They've had an eye on South Carolina the whole time. They did feel they had to come here. They felt that it was important to go to all of the states. Campaigning here is a way to get respect in South Carolina. It just shows that you're a candidate who feels you need to run everywhere, and need to see what you can do - talk to people all over the country.

But again, South Carolina will have many more of those evangelical voters. Now, there are still a number of candidates who are looking for that same vote, so we'll see how it's divided up. But he does expect a warmer welcome there.

BLOCK: OK, Don, thank you. That's NPR's Don Gonyea at Rick Santorum's New Hampshire campaign quarters.

We turn now to NPR's Robert Smith, who is stationed with the Ron Paul campaign. And Robert, Paul's message hasn't changed since 2008, the last time he ran for the Republican presidential nomination. In New Hampshire last time, he placed fifth. Why does he expect to do better this time?

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Well, yeah, he got 8 percent of the vote last time. And it was hugely disappointing for him and his supporters because New Hampshire is supposed to be this hotbed of libertarianism - "Live Free or Die," that whole thing. But Ron Paul thinks he can do better this time, simply because the world is so much different than it was four years ago. I mean, I saw him four years ago, and I've seen him on this campaign trail. And he's talking about exactly the same things - smaller government, debt, banks, modern money, getting rid of the Federal Reserve. But, you know, four years ago, that stuff didn't seem to matter as much. People didn't know what the Federal Reserve was.

And now, I find - talking to his supporters - they're far more literate about what's going on in the economy. And Ron Paul, when you talk to him about this, thinks that that means his message resonates more.

But there are also a couple of structural things that are really going to help Ron Paul tonight. I mean, one is that he does very well with independent voters. And you know, four years ago, independents could choose the Republican or Democratic primary. But this year, exit polls are showing that there is a huge surge of independent voters in the Republican primary. And that's good for Paul. And the exit polls are also showing that the voters are describing themselves as economic conservatives, but not necessarily social conservatives. And once again, that's very good for Ron Paul.

BLOCK: And briefly, Robert, if Ron Paul does manage to pull off a second-place finish tonight, what does that mean, going forward?

SMITH: Well, you know, I don't mean to be flip, but it doesn't really matter very much. Ron Paul is going to go on, no matter what. He's said that. He's going to South Carolina; he's going to try and amass as many delegates as he can, and go to the convention. For Ron Paul, it's about the movement, building the movement. He talks about that - not necessarily becoming the next president of the United States.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Robert Smith, from the Ron Paul campaign headquarters. And now to NPR's Tovia Smith, who's covering Jon Huntsman's campaign.

And Tovia, Jon Huntsman has been talking about a surge of momentum that he's been feeling there in New Hampshire. Are you picking up on that energy, where you are?

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: We are. We're in a pretty small bar, and it's already pretty full here. They're expecting a big crowd - as they've been seeing, suddenly, at all their campaign events the past few days. The campaign tweeted us a little bit earlier, kind of gloating, telling reporters - you know - expect to be packed in tight here tonight because like - you know, sorry, they booked the place a whole four days ago, when they were at the bottom of the pack.

And now, what a difference. I spoke to a guy holding a sign at a polling station today, who said he's been with Huntsman since August, back in the dark days - as he said - and no one even knew who Huntsman was. Now they know; they come to events and, you know, these guys can only hope they vote, too.

But clearly, Huntsman has struck a chord. Voters have been telling me they started paying attention to him when he stood up to Romney at the debates over the weekend, defending his service as ambassador for President Obama - and not just because he showed a little feistiness, but also because of the message of unity - you know, country before politics both in principle and for practical reasons because, as Huntsman says, the GOP can't win back the White House without independents.

And you know, that's resonating. As a matter of fact, we just watched the campaign, literally, unwrap a giant, brand-new sign for this stage here, with their new "Country First" tagline. They literally, just took it out of the wrapper. The line is working, and they're going with it.

BLOCK: OK, so great expectations within the Huntsman campaign. Big money questions that would face Jon Huntsman moving forward, though.

SMITH: True but, you know, they've got like a kind of anything's possible attitude here right now. He's just first, getting focus and consideration from folks. And as Huntsman says, if you do well, people will invest in you. Just like the campaign says, money has been pouring in - relatively pouring in, anyway, since the Sunday debate. And they're banking on momentum kind of taking care of the money issue, going forward.

BLOCK: OK. That's NPR's Tovia Smith, covering Jon Huntsman's campaign. And finally, we turn to NPR's Andrea Seabrook, who is following Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire. And Andrea, going into the primary today, Newt Gingrich was spending a lot of time attacking the front-runner, Mitt Romney.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: He sure was - stinging, sharp attacks on Romney, especially the time that Romney led Bain Capital, the investment firm that bought a lot of companies. And some of them went bankrupt; some of them did very well. And of course, he and the other executives at Bain Capital did very well in this scheme - well, it's normal business.

But there is a - attack ad - it's really kind of an attack movie - that should be premiering tomorrow, as there are some journalists who have copies of it already - that is all about Romney's time at Bain. And Gingrich - his campaign got a special boost of money in the last day or so, to allow them to buy this movie and run it, finance it. And it really is - seems to be trying to throw Romney off his game as the whole campaign, the whole - entire primary moves south, into more friendly Gingrich territory.

BLOCK: And one question would be, does it not only throw Mitt Romney off his game, but what about his voters? Are they having second thoughts? Have you gotten any sense of that, there in New Hampshire?

SEABROOK: You know, it's interesting. People who are very strongly for Romney seem to sort of see it as this sort of last gasp of the Newt Gingrich campaign. But people who are questioning whether Romney should be the front-runner really find these attacks to be a problem. They find his time at Bain Capital to be a problem.

That doesn't necessarily mean that they are running to Newt Gingrich as their candidate. But it does seem to be putting some people off.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Andrea Seabrook, thanks so much - along with Tovia Smith, Robert Smith and Don Gonyea, all in Manchester, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.