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The State Of Play In The GOP Presidential Field



New Hampshire voters could make Mitt Romney's nomination a near certainty on Tuesday. Every presidential candidate in modern history who's won both Iowa and New Hampshire has gone on to win the party's nomination. And so this morning at the final debate before the vote, five of the six remaining candidates directed most of their fire at, as expected, front-runner Mitt Romney.

NEWT GINGRICH: Look, can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: But I don't see how we can do well against Obama if we have any candidate that, you know, endorsed single-payer systems and TARP bailouts and challenge...

RICK SANTORUM: He wouldn't stand up for conservative principles, he ran for Ronald Reagan.

MITT ROMNEY: If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

RAZ: Sounds from the debate in New Hampshire this morning. Since 1920, New Hampshire has been the first state to hold a presidential primary, and Granite State voters guard that status fiercely. Our cover story today: the New Hampshire effect: the birthplace and sometimes graveyard for presidential hopefuls.

In a moment, how Pat Buchanan almost ripped the Republican Party apart in 1996, and later, Gary Hart on his insurgent victory in the state in 1984.

But first to NPR's Mara Liasson. She's in Manchester, New Hampshire. And, Mara, Romney looked very confident this morning, but it seems like major elements of the Republican Party are still not prepared to accept him just yet, even if he does win in New Hampshire.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, there's no doubt that one of the most significant features of this race has been Romney's failure to expand his own electorate. In other words, he's pretty much getting the same vote totals that he got last time. It's just that the field of candidates against him is so fractured, they're dividing the anti-Romney vote.

He hasn't won over social conservatives. He hasn't won over the most conservative voters in his party. That may not be an impediment to him getting the nomination, but it is something to watch as he becomes, most likely, a general election candidate.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. Prominent evangelicals are in Texas this weekend. They went there to figure out who they are going to gather around and support. What do we know about that meeting?

LIASSON: Well, we know that all along, evangelicals and social conservatives and even Tea Party conservatives have not been happy with Mitt Romney, and they are trying to see if at this late hour, they can coalesce behind someone - that might be Rick Santorum - but there are some questions about this.

One, is it too late for anybody to put together the kind of campaign to actually challenge Mitt Romney? And, two, can these evangelicals and conservatives get behind one candidate? There's still people who are for Newt Gingrich, some are for Santorum, some are waiting to see if Perry can actually revive himself in South Carolina. So I think it's a little late for the social conservatives to try this.

RAZ: Mara, Romney seems to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but there is still damage to be done to him. I mean, a SuperPAC backing Gingrich is planning a mini-documentary about Romney's time in Bain Capital. Other candidates are saying he's a crypto-liberal. There's a subtext to the attacks that he's not a true Christian. Will these attacks create lasting damage for Romney if he does, indeed, become the nominee?

LIASSON: Well, that's a very good question. I've been thinking about that a lot. You know, Mitt Romney is not a beloved candidate. He doesn't spark a lot of passion among Republicans. And there is a question as to what would happen to the enthusiasm gap. Republicans had a lot more enthusiasm than Democrats, but if they nominate someone they're not crazy about, would some of that enthusiasm advantage go away for them?

But I do think that the desire to defeat Barack Obama will be all the unifying force that Romney needs. And the other thing to remember are the very things that make Romney suspect to conservatives are the same things that make him a stronger general election candidate with the ability to reach out to moderates and independents.

RAZ: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson who's in New Hampshire covering the upcoming primary. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.