MERRIMACK, N.H. — With just four days to go until the New Hampshire primary, the six remaining GOP candidates will face off Saturday night in a debate in Manchester. A second debate, in nearby Concord, will follow Sunday morning.
The pressure is on for anyone looking to challenge former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is coming off a razor-thin victory in Iowa and holds a 20-point lead in the latest New Hampshire polls.
Romney’s lead in the Granite State may seem insurmountable, but with South Carolina’s primary just a week after New Hampshire’s everyone is watching, and candidates could use the opportunity to make a play for voters in that critical southern state. The Daily Caller asked observers on the ground in New Hampshire about what’s at stake tonight for the GOP hopefuls.
As the frontrunner, Romney’s job is simply to keep it together, deliver a solid debate performance, and not commit any memorable unforced errors.
In a state that is obviously “fertile ground” for Romney, “he needs to come out of this as unscathed as possible,” said Republican consultant Mike DeVanney.
“If you are in the lead, don’t lose what you have and somehow let those undecided voters or those supporting candidates come to the realization that you are unacceptable,” went the advice emailed to TheDC by Chuck Warren, a Republican political consultant.
Former New Hampshire Republican Party chrairman Fergus Cullen said the front-runner’s rivals are likely to “make their bones by going after Romney, not because they’re trying to defeat Romney, because I think that’s impossible,” but because “they are competing for the non-Romney voter,” and the best way to fill that slot is to make the contrast as clear as possible.
How Romney handles the pressure — whether he gets testy, as he has done at times in the past when criticized, or simply laughs it off, as he has in previous debates — will reveal something about about his capacity for self-control in a crisis.
“Romney needs merely to ride it out and not lose his cool,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the New Hampshire based think tank the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. “He’ll be repeating in his head all night ‘stay on message.’
And lose his cool he might, since he’s likely to be the subject of attacks from all sides.
Warren predicted that Romney “will feel like a piñata at an 8-year old’s birthday party.”
To really hurt himself, Romney would have to do a lot of damage, for instance, in “some spectacular Rick Perry-style moment,” in the words of Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman and a Romney supporter, who called such an eventuality “unlikely.”
But the debate could still be fraught with peril for Romney, as voters who have never warmed to him continue to search for an alternative. “For the debate to matter, something about the exchange has to go to deeper, perhaps to unarticulated issues or uneasiness about the frontrunner,” emailed Larry Sabatom, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics . “Will this happen tonight? I have no idea, which is why I’ll watch.”
“It would take a lot to damage Romney’s standing in NH,” Sabato added. “It would take less to damage his fragile standing in SC. We’ll see. The basic structure of the election still favors him, since the anti-Romney vote is badly split and there is nothing approaching a perfect alternative in the contest. I guess it is theoretically possible for one conservative candidate to do so well tonight that Republicans of like mind shout, ‘Eureka!’ and rush to his banner in order to stop Romney. Let me put my emphasis on the word ‘theoretically.’”
After a poor performance in Iowa, Texas Gov. Rick Perry had one foot out the door before he an epiphany while out running led him to stay in the race. For Perry, the fact that the debate is in New Hampshire is incidental: He flies in for the debate, stays for the second showdown Sunday morning, and then leaves.
Cullen pointed out that Perry’s entire New Hampshire campaign strategy consisted of two debates with live audiences, three house parties, two speeches, and a few photo ops. Needless to say, he will be talking primarily to voters in South Carolina, where he has placed his hopes for a resurgence.
“I think many people are surprised that he’s still in the race,” said DeVanney. Perry’s most concrete contribution to the debate tonight, DeVanney said, would be if “he is going to be in there as the attack dog against [former Sen. Rick] Santorum,” who he sees as his biggest obstacle in South Carolina, after his near-win in Iowa. That, DeVanney said, would ultimately help Romney.
Perhaps the best indicator of the role Perry will play in tonight’s debate is the fact that none of the other consultants contacted by TheDC thought to mention him.
Debates are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s strong suit, so these two are do-or-die events for him if he wants “to prove that he’s still relevant with his crashing poll numbers,” said Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire-based Republican political consultant.
“The debates will make or break his campaign,” said the Bartlett Center’s Arlinghaus.
“Debates are his medium and he needs to prove to a large audience that he still stands out and looks presidential,” he added.
The question, Warren added, is what Gingrich does in the debate — whether or not he can “get back to his successful debate strategy of the past and not let his pride and wounded ego distract him from his strength.”
Gingrich has been on the warpath since losing big in the Iowa caucuses, blaming negative ads run by Romney and his Super PACs for his own slide in the polls. On Thursday he held a town hall specifically to highlight differences between himself and the New Hampshire front-runner. The strategy can make Gingrich appear somewhat bitter and dour, as he did in his concession speech after Iowa.
Political consultant Dan Hazelwood called this Gingrich’s “kamikaze mission versus Romney.” But the former speaker is full of surprises, and it’s possible that he could choose to take a different path this evening.
Texas Congressman “Ron Paul will be … Ron Paul,” quipped Warren. Paul, who currently polls in second place in New Hampshire, is Romney’s closest challenger.
“He is who he is,” Warren continued. “His core will love him, his message is consistent, he is a good man and the other 75‒80% of Republican voters will look at the other candidates because of his foreign policy views and their discomfort with some of his supporters.”
Paul’s burden this evening, Dennehy added, is to show that he has the potential to break that mold, “to try to convince people that he can grow his base of support beyond 20 points.”
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has staked his campaign on New Hampshire: He has been all but living there, holding an innumerable number of campaign events. Yet, as Dennehy told TheDC, he “remains a non-entity because he cannot catch fire.”
So if Huntsman hopes to be the Rick Santorum of New Hampshire and surprise everyone, it’s “now or never,” Warren warned.
“If he hopes for a third [place] finish in New Hampshire (which may be impossible), he needs to hit some doubles and triples and let his personality come through,” Warren added. “He has to take some chances.”
Fresh off his surprise almost-victory in Iowa, Rick Santorum has a real opportunity to shine tonight.
The former Pennsylvania senator has been largely ignored in previous debates, often occupying the podium space at the far edge of the debate stage, so tonight is “almost like a coming out party,” Arlinghaus said.
“He is the one everyone is listening to hear more from,” Hazelwood said.
If he wants to hold onto his momentum, he’ll have to show his stuff. “As the newest candidate with momentum, he needs to show a national audience for the first time that he can handle the spotlight,” Dennehy explained. “But he’ll also need to illustrate to voters the reason it should be a two person race between he and Romney so he needs to land some solid punches.”
“Does he convince people and connect with them or does he not?” asked Hazelwood.
With the spotlight will come the threat of body-blows from all sides.
“He may get attacked more than he thinks,” said Warren. “Actually he may feel like the guy on the tractor getting balls on a golf course driving range. Now that he is in the spotlight, his record is being combed over … He will probably be hit as hard as Romney with new arguments voters have not heard before.”
If Santorum handles it well, he is the candidate with the most to gain. A strong showing in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday could cement his position as the principle anti-Romney in the Republican presidential field.
Will Rahn contributed reporting to this article.
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