NH shift brings new dynamic to GOP contest

Published 11:17 am Monday, January 2, 2012

MERRIMACK, N.H.  — The political world shifts 1,300 miles east later this week.

And the end of Tuesday’s Iowa presidential caucuses will give way a day later to a very different contest in New Hampshire, thrusting a new set of faces, issues and political challenges onto the Republican presidential contest.

Abortion will yield to taxes and budget deficits. And then there’s something known locally as the curse of the front-runner.

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“I don’t think Iowa’s going to have much influence on New Hampshire either way, truthfully,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, one of Mitt Romney’s most prominent New Hampshire supporters. “I think they probably don’t like to hear it, but that’s the reality.”

Iowa and New Hampshire voters are more likely to be white and better educated than the national average. But the similarities end there.

Where a relatively small group of conservative activists usually dominate the Iowa Republican caucuses, the nation’s first Republican primary on Jan. 10 is open to a broad spectrum of voters: tea party activists, moderates and left-leaning independents alike. That means who you see and what they say on the campaign trail will likely change.

Romney is considered the overwhelming favorite in New Hampshire, where Ron Paul also enjoys a passionate following. And former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the only candidate skipping the Iowa caucuses, is lying in wait in the first-in-the-nation primary state.

While the state of the race here today likely will change with the Iowa result, New Hampshire voters delight in upsetting the conventional wisdom. Chalk it up to the state’s fierce independent streak, but pre-primary poll leaders have had mixed success over the years.

Indeed, an Iowa Republican caucus winner has never won a contested New Hampshire presidential primary in the modern era.

The New Hampshire political terrain is so different than Iowa, where influential evangelicals dominate, that some Republicans already are bypassing the state.

Perry plans to head straight from Iowa to South Carolina, the site of the subsequent contest. Bachmann’s campaign reports similar plans, while Santorum hasn’t been active in New Hampshire for months.

New Hampshire is the second least religious state in the nation, according to a 2008 Gallup poll. And Republican voters here are much more likely to support abortion rights and gay marriage than their partisan friends elsewhere.

Look no further than Mike Huckabee, the former pastor who soundly defeated Mitt Romney in the Iowa Republican caucus four years ago. Huckabee would finish a distant third in New Hampshire on his way to fading from the nomination contest ultimately won by the New Hampshire primary victor, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

“A candidate who can win here is probably more likely to be able to win the general election,” said University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith. “It’s not political activists who determine who wins in New Hampshire. It’s regular old voters.”

The distinction is a source of pride of sorts in New Hampshire, where former governor and prominent Romney backer John H. Sununu long ago coined the phrase, “Iowa picks corn, while New Hampshire picks presidents.”

This year could be different.

Polling suggests that Romney could win both.

Despite finishing second here four years ago, he’s the overwhelming frontrunner in New Hampshire. The former governor of a neighboring state, he has devoted more time and energy here than anywhere else. And with his opponents splintering the anti-Romney vote in Iowa, recent polling suggests that Romney’s also positioned to do very well there.

“If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, this could be a quick contest,” said Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire member of the Republican National Committee.

Romney has another advantage. Unlike some rivals, his message has been remarkably consistent wherever he goes.

“The strategy doesn’t change at all,” top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. “The Number 1 issue is jobs and the economy. That’s what they care about in Iowa, that’s what they care about in New Hampshire and every place else.”

It’s a similar situation for Texas Rep. Paul, a libertarian favorite who has won a passionate following based largely on his anti-government, anti-tax, and anti-spending message. That’s a message that plays well in New Hampshire and has become a rallying cry for Republicans across the nation.

The shift to New Hampshire also brings new attention to Huntsman, the former ambassador the China, who is betting his candidacy on a strong New Hampshire finish. It was a strategy driven by Huntsman’s moderate appeal. New Hampshire allows independents to vote in its Republican contest.

But amid the shifting faces and messages, New Hampshire has offered one lesson over the years: Expect the unexpected — for the next week or so, anyway.

And then it’s on to South Carolina.