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Round 2!

On the front lines with the GOP candidates in New Hampshire.

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NASHUA, N.H. — It was Jon Huntsman's third trip to the western New Hampshire campus of Keene State College, as the candidate himself noted on his visit there on Sunday night — the last day but one for campaigning in  the nation's first presidential primary of 2012.

To be sure, the Iowa caucuses, held the week before, had begun in recent years to steal some of the Granite State's thunder in presidential-election years. But New Hampshire was still the Big Kahuna, the first direct traditional vote, the one that had loomed large on the national map since 1952, when a big Democratic primary vote for Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver forced then President Harry Truman to reconsider his reelection chances and, shortly thereafter, to bow out of the running.

That same year, General Dwight D. Eisenhower's name had fared so well on the Republican side of the primary against Ohio senator Robert A. Taft, a traditional conservative, that "Ike," the nation's foremost World War II military hero, had been moved to resign his job as commanding officer of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and come home to contend for the presidency in earnest.

Kefauver would not make it — an offended Truman having enough clout with the big-city political machines to intercede in favor of Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson at the Democratic convention in Chicago that year. But Eisenhower did make it, overcoming an early Taft lead at the Republican convention, also held in Chicago in 1952, to become his adopted party's nominee and go on to victory that year against Stevenson.

Since that year, presidential-preference primaries have proliferated in America, as have caucuses like the one in Iowa, which now shares early billing with New Hampshire, but, as Huntsman noted accurately to an enthusiastic crowd of some 300, New Hampshire is still the one that matters most, the event that can change the nation's mind and make or break candidacies.

Huntsman, a former Utah governor who had most recently served as ambassador to China under Democratic incumbent president Barack Obama, was in a position that reflected the differences between the campaign year of 2012 and that of 1952, 60 years earlier. Regarded as the moderate in the Republican race — a tag that was reinforced by his recent service under Obama and by his steady rhetoric about "putting my country first" — Huntsman faced a task that was almost the opposite of that of Eisenhower, who had ridden a tide of ascendant liberalism in the GOP of his day.

Now the tide seemed to roll the other way, in favor of a conservatism that was so strong among Republicans that Huntsman, all too keenly aware of how he was regarded in the heartland, had skipped Iowa altogether, daring to comment, "Iowa picks corn. New Hampshire picks presidents."

That very morning, at a nationally televised GOP candidate debate held in the New Hampshire capital of Concord under the auspices of NBC's Meet the Press, Huntsman had received a shot across the bow from the man considered the Republican front-runner, both in New Hampshire and in the GOP contest overall, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, coincidentally a fellow Mormon.

Romney had cited Huntsman's recent service under Obama as a reason not to see him as a plausible candidate for the opposition party.

That gave Huntsman a moment of sorts. Pointing his index finger at Romney, he said solemnly, "This country is divided because of attitudes like that."

And now, when he toggled his audience at Keene with the line, "Did you like the debate this morning?" the crowd responded with appreciative applause.

This was not a Republican rank-and-file crowd. Keene being a college town, it looked to be composed in equal parts of students and public-affairs junkies. Two audience members, flanking me on a middle row, were Martha LaFleur, a retired educator, and Rose Kundanis, head of the college's journalism department. Both carefully described themselves as "independents" in a way that was reminiscent of how, back in the now-vanished time of Democratic domination of Tennessee politics, people voting for Republicans used to say, "I vote for the man, not the party." Kundanis, who had served a stint as an instructor at a private academy in Sewanee and later as a reporter for the Tullahoma News, well remembered such times.

And LaFleur acknowledged that she and her husband had both been avid supporters of Barack Obama when the current president was seeking the Democratic nomination in 2008.

If the youthful-looking Huntsman, who had entered the meeting room in what appeared to be a biker's jacket, shedding it to reveal a professorial-style button-down shirt, had a possible constituency in New Hampshire, it was to be found in an audience like this.

And yet, during the Q&A which concluded his appearance, Huntsman acknowledged that he, too, like most of the Republican field, would call for the repeal of the Dodd-Frank bill, passed during the first year of Obama's tenure as a means of curbing the excesses of the nation's financial industry.

And when LaFleur rose, with the last question of the evening, to ask what Huntsman's policy on Social Security reform might be, the candidate cited the rise in national life expectancy since 1935, when the Social Security system was created under FDR, and suggested further that wealthy individuals didn't really "need" Social Security.

Accordingly, though he omitted any call, à la George W. Bush, for "private accounts," Huntsman called for means-testing of Social Security recipients and a gradual increase in the age of eligibility. Then, with a gracious smile, he professed not to believe that the white-haired LaFleur could actually be a senior herself.

Pleased by the compliment, LaFleur nevertheless sat down with a concerned look on her face. A day before, as I told her, I had heard essentially the same prescription for Social Security reform, accompanied by the same rationale and even the same set of figures, espoused by candidate Rick Santorum, in theory a red-meat Republican with supposed appeal to Tea Party conservatives.

"I know," LaFleur said, now looking troubled, perhaps wondering what had happened to the optimistic "our time" mood of the Obama movement of four years earlier.

 

The fact is, a serious recession happened during the latter months of the George W. Bush presidency, one caused by a puncturing of the national housing balloon as the financial securities which had pumped it up turned out to be non-existent to the point of being fraudulent. And the nation's financial community itself was then propped up by huge taxpayer-funded bailouts which had not managed to stem the resultant economic decline and left simmering resentments at every point along the political spectrum.

Obama, who responded with a sizable national stimulus program, was able to work no miracles, at least partly because a state of gridlock persisted between himself and congressional Republicans, who filibustered virtually every one of his initiatives. And the off-year elections of 2010 had turned Congress over to that new group of right-wing populist Republicans who go by the name of Tea Party.

One consequence was that the contending Republican presidential candidates of 2012 were all vowing to make serious retrenchments and major cutbacks in entitlement programs, even supposed "moderates" like Huntsman and Romney. I had seen the latter speak to a gymnasium crowd at Derry, New Hampshire, the day before. On the stage with him was Nikki Haley, the avowedly Tea Party Republican governor of South Carolina, who in her introduction washed her hands rhetorically of the national government in Washington, which she characterized as synonymous with "chaos."

Romney, who the week before in Iowa had been accompanied on the stump by another Republican governor, New Jersey's Chris Christie, was using such surrogates in New Hampshire to underscore the message that he should be regarded as representing the Republican political establishment. A day later, he had Christie back at one New Hampshire venue and ex-Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty with him at yet another. Pawlenty had been a presidential candidate himself before dropping out midway of 2011, and Christie, a plain-spoken, barrel-shaped hearty sort, had been avidly courted to be a candidate by party regulars dissatisfied with the current crop of GOP hopefuls but had consistently refused. 

Playing off his Jersey tough-guy image in Iowa, Christie had suggested, à la Tony Soprano, that if that state's voters didn't "do right" by Romney in the caucuses, he would "be back" to see them. He need not have worried. Despite a late surge by Santorum, who seemed to have become the survivor of an elimination contest involving the party's "conservative" candidates, Romney prevailed in Iowa by the razor-thin majority of eight votes.

When it came his time to speak at Derry, Romney called Obama ineffectual and promised to roll back his handiwork, beginning with "Obamacare," the Republicans' name for the president's health-care reform package, passed in 2009. It was one of the classic ironies — frequently noted by Romney's GOP opponents as well as by Democrats — that the president's program, with its universal mandates for health-care insurance, was virtually identical to Romney's own health-care program, enacted during his term as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.

It seemed clear that Romney, who had run for his party's presidential nomination four years earlier and fallen short, losing out to Senator John McCain, regarded himself, in accordance with GOP tradition, to be next in the line of succession. Therefore, he was prepared to distance himself from anything that was out of favor with the party's establishment or its evolving rank and file, and if that included "Obamacare," so be it.

Romney, the son of the late George Romney, a former governor of Michigan and a onetime presidential hopeful himself, could lay claim to having had a distinguished career, not only as governor of Massachusetts but as a successful business executive and as the force behind the successful 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

Nobody doubted his ability, but everybody, it seemed, doubted his sincerity, on the basis of what opponents called "flip-flops" but which may have been merely the kind of pragmatic reversals that are common to business executives at the highest levels.

In any case, he had reversed himself on an abundance of political issues, and his rhetoric in espousing political programs was not only suspect for that reason but because, unlike virtually all his GOP opponents of whatever stripe, the things he said all sounded like so many advertising slogans.

As a prominent Memphis Republican, who, for obvious reasons, would prefer not to be identified, put it, "He says all the right things, but I keep wondering how come he doesn't seem to believe them?"

Perhaps the most extreme form of this cognitive dissonance was reached within the last couple of weeks with a Romney ad casting him as someone determined "to save the soul of America."

Even so, Romney was widely considered the front-runner, and a string of early victories could nail down the nomination. There were, of course, those who were determined to prevent that.

On the heels of his de facto tie with Romney in Iowa, the late-blooming campaign of former Pennsylvania senator Santorum continued to draw crowds in New Hampshire. An affair at a barn in Hollis, just across the Massachusetts border, drew a throng of 1,500 or so — one so large that almost half of it remained outside the building, forcing Santorum to do an impromptu Q&A there before entering the barn for what was in effect a second presentation.

For those who remember Santorum mainly as a holder of the fort on the social-conservative side, a last-ditch defender of faith and values against man-on-dog infamies, his speech in Hollis provided some different perspectives. He confessed that in 1990, as a former College Republican and political staffer (both of which incarnations still show in Santorum's unseasonably boyish 53-year-old face), he began his maiden race for Congress in a state of uncertainty about such issues, even the hot-button matter of abortion.

Since then, of course, Santorum, who served two terms in the House and two in the Senate before being routed by Democrat Bob Casey in 2006, has doubled down on his Catholic faith, married, and raised a large family, and his position on social issues is undoubtedly sincere. It has to be remembered that Pennsylvania, particularly its blue-collar western part, from whence came Santorum, is culturally conservative and that even Casey, who is that rarity, a pro-life Democrat, reflects that.

Inevitably, Santorum will remind his audiences that, before his double-digit loss in 2006, "the toughest year for Republicans in Pennsylvania history," he had won all four of his previous races in what he maintains was an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency. (And, almost uniquely on the GOP-candidate  circuit, he makes a point of saying"Democratic Party," not "Democrat Party.")

Increasingly, Santorum is focusing his campaign on a series of tax breaks and other incentives to revitalize manufacturing. He as much as says — in fact, does say — that the Republican verities of low taxes and less government per se provide an insufficient prescription to renew the vigor of the American economy.

And his turnaway rally in Hollis was revealing in another way. The best way of describing it is to say it was packed and attentive. Not until he entered into what is an inevitable feature of his Q&A sessions — a dialogue with someone in his audience on the question of same-sex marriage (which he continues to oppose, though with increasingly conspicuous politeness) — did the largish number of gay-rights defenders manifest their proportions by the volume of their responses. According to news reports, Santorum seems to have run into some heckling elsewhere. At Hollis, he and the crowd achieved something of a modus vivendi, and it will be fascinating to see how this evolves if his campaign wears on into the summer.

At Hollis, he was pressed into revealing his formula for Social Security. What it came down to was, as indicated previously, means-testing and the gradual extension of the age of eligibility. It is a formula that some Democrats in Congress have also floated, and it, unlike the chimera of private accounts in an age of Wall Street uncertainty, seems subject to bipartisan negotiation.

Santorum's task is to suggest such middle-ground remedies while at the same time remaining first in line as an exponent of social conservatism. The tack he is taking is reminiscent of that of Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, when Buchanan talked up working-class values while staying clear of something so traditional and Democratically inclined as the union movement.

And there was Newt Gingrich. As a whole cast of putative non-Romneys (including such dropouts as financier/TV host Donald Trump and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain) had, each in turn, experienced their rise and fall through the summer and fall, it seemed for a while that onetime speaker of the House Gingrich, who flourished as a combination opponent/partner with Democratic President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, might be the survivor.

A few weeks before Iowa, opinion polls in Iowa had Gingrich leading Romney by double digits, but that was before the rest of the suddenly panicked field, led by Romney and, of all people, by libertarian populist Ron Paul, launched a flurry of negative advertising attacking Gingrich for sins real and imagined and, where the former were concerned, concentrating on the very real fact of Gingrich's having profited hugely from various government-related enterprises in the "private sector" (a term that appeared almost nonsensical when applied to Gingrich's post-speakership activities). Notorious among these were his stipends, totaling well more than $1 million from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the quasi-governmental housing lenders who had fallen into ill repute among Republicans and whom Gingrich claimed to have served not as a lobbyist but as a "historian."

The negative ads took their toll, and Gingrich surrendered his place as a realistic challenger to Santorum, who, as they say, peaked at just the right time. But the garrulous and eloquent former speaker resolved not to go gentle into retirement or obscurity. And he remains in the race, evidently funded well enough and well-covered enough by an appreciative media to have a fair chance of spoiling Romney's hopes and, who knows, perhaps to get back into the game.

It is Gingrich who is widely suspected of having collaborated with the producers of a new film challenging Romney's role as head of Bain Capital and charging Romney with not just being a flip-flopper but someone who, to make handsome profits for himself, "flipped" several businesses out of existence, causing significant unemployment.

Too, there is Ron Paul, the idiosyncratic libertarian congressman from Texas who has taken the most radical positions of any national political figure and who, finally, at 76, seems to have come of age politically.

Paul is more than a candidate; he is the leader of a movement calling for the cessation of all American military involvement abroad (a stand which, along with his support for the legalization of marijuana, has garnered him some supporters on the left) and for the ultimate elimination of virtually every social entitlement here at home. Because of the very uniqueness of his positions, none of which resounds with any existing political establishment, Paul has been regarded as the most "sincere" candidate in the field.

He ran closely behind Romney and Santorum in Iowa and was primed to make a strong showing in New Hampshire as well. Aside from the heterodoxical nature of his positions, there is one other point to make about Paul, however. For better or for worse, he has learned to play hardball and has raised enough money to be able to do so, launching attack ads not only at Romney but at Gingrich and Santorum, his clear rivals for second-place status as the primary season wears on.

Cynics can make of this fact what they will. Paul is, in any case, a major spoiler.

And, oh yes, still in the race — but just barely — is Rick Perry. (Oops!) The Texas governor's much ballyhooed entry into the race last summer had been strong enough to blunt Minnesota congressman Michele Bachmann's early surge from a victory in the Iowa straw vote. Bachmann's campaign consisted thereafter of little more than rote philippics against the specters of "Obamacare" and godless liberalism. One of her last events in the Hawkeye State (literally) was a public paean to "our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." But, unlike the remarkable, plausibly inspired NFL (and Christian) hero Tim Tebow, she was able to manifest no special grace, either of her own or arguably on loan from the Lord, and she expired sourly in single digits, the evangelicals of Iowa settling mainly on the unexpectably nimble Santorum.

As for Perry, he proved to be no messenger, either, lumbering disastrously and at times comically through his public appearances and a series of debates. How long has it been since anybody mentioned the record number of jobs (or "McJobs," as critics referred to these largely minimum-wage affairs) he brought to Texas? Perry had been able to score double digits in Iowa so as to avoid Bachmann's fate of elimination, but on the basis of looking good and wearing nice suits (he continued to be the subject of female autograph hounds), more than anything he said or did. He avoided New Hampshire altogether except for an overnight stay on Saturday, which allowed him to appear in that evening's televised debate and another the next morning on Meet the Press. His chief contribution to these public dialogues was to suggest that American troops should reenter Iraq and, when, like the others, he was asked Saturday night what else he'd be doing that evening if not debating, he offered the off-putting non sequitur that he'd be on a shooting range.

While the others were feverishly pushing off against each other in New Hampshire, Perry spent most of last week doing events in South Carolina, which holds a primary on January 21st. He still had money to burn, but neither the media nor his opponents seemed to be paying him the slightest attention. On Sunday, he was joined in South Carolina by Santorum, who had good prospects in the Palmetto State.

Still, before bidding his inevitable adieu there or soon thereafter elsewhere, Perry could add his little nibble to the bigger bites Santorum, Paul, and Gingrich would be taking from the still not unified non-Romney vote.

The upshot of all this — especially given the new-for-2012 abolition of winner-take-all outcomes in the early GOP primaries — was that, regardless of the outcome in New Hampshire, Romney might still be struggling on Super Tuesday, March 6th, when Tennessee is on the calendar along with nine other states, to wrap things up. Meanwhile, a victory in South Carolina, even by the merest plurality, coupled with one in Florida on January 31st, would give the then presumed front-runner considerable, if not irreversible, momentum.

Given the existing connections between Romney and Tennessee governor Bill Haslam, who already has family members (his father and a brother) involved in support roles for the former Massachusetts governor, and given further the backup for Romney in the early states from the likes of Haley, Christie, and Pawlenty, it is hard to see how Haslam himself could stay out of the fray.

Considering the almost certain demise of the Perry candidacy by then, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who has been the Texas governor's main string-puller in Tennessee and who, consciously or unconsciously, managed to consistently upstage Haslam during the latter's brief gubernatorial tenure, would seem to have a choice: sidle up to Haslam on the Romney bandwagon or find another candidate — Santorum or Gingrich — to ride along with.

In any case, Tennessee — and Tennesseans — are still likely to have choices to make down the line.

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