GOP Candidates Hope N.H. Debate Sets Them Apart

Originally published on August 24, 2011 11:55 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers reports.

JOSH ROGERS: Political professionals have truisms about debates. Pat Griffin has advised dozens of candidates, including both the first and second President Bush.

PAT GRIFFIN: Number one, it's kind of like the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. Get through the debate, don't stumble, don't make a mistake.

ROGERS: For Mitt Romney, who's led every poll in New Hampshire since 2009, tonight's mission is straightforward - look presidential and...

MIKE DENNEHY: Stick to the issues where you're strong, stick to business issues, to the economy, to jobs and be smart about your defense of health care. And that's it.

RODGERS: But for everybody else, he says, this night needs to be about pulling themselves clear of the conservative pack.

DENNEHY: The bottom line is, we are entering the summer, and candidates need to start moving and differentiating themselves from each other.

ROGERS: Which is easier to do if people know who you are. Just ask former Minnesota governor, Tim Pawlenty. Despite more than a dozen trips to New Hampshire, he's still polling in the single digits.

TIM PAWLENTY: When they ask people in these polls, you know, would you vote for X or Pawlenty, half the people being asked don't even know who I am. So we have to first make sure that I introduce myself to voters and then get their support.

ROGERS: But for other candidates, it's not name recognition so much as negative associations that come with the name. Newt Gingrich hopes this debate will help him re-launch a campaign that's reeling from the resignations of all his top staff.

NEWT GINGRICH: You know my goal is going to be to say something directly to the American people, not to debate my colleagues, and frankly, not particularly to deal with whatever the news media wants to get into.

ROGERS: And Gingrich won't be the only GOP candidate hopeful who needs some political rebranding. Republican strategist Pat Griffin says much of the field consists of niche candidates.

GRIFFIN: Fundamentally, we've got a group of candidates who appeal to specific parts of the party, very few of whom can attract independent voters, which they will need in a general election but they will also need to win the New Hampshire primary.

ROGERS: GOP consultant Mike Dennehy says that's a prerequisite for any candidate who hopes to emerge as a Romney alternative.

DENNEHY: Candidates mired in single digits right now, they need to raise money. And they're not going to be able to raise money if they don't show movement in the polls.

ROGERS: But as UNH political scientist Dante Scala notes, it's also possible, perhaps even probable, that this debate changes little.

DANTE SCALA: For the volume of words expended on them, these early debates rarely amount to anything resembling a decisive fork in the road.

ROGERS: For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord, New Hampshire.

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