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Ready, Set, GOP in New Hampshire Debate

Expanding field of Republican presidential hopefuls will try to be taken seriously when they debate in New Hampshire on Monday night.

Republican presidential hopefuls, from the left: Rep. Ron Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.(Getty Images)

photo of Beth Reinhard
June 13, 2011

New Hampshire, proud host of the nation’s first presidential primary, will bring together most of the 2012 Republican contenders for the first time Monday in a live, nationally televised debate.

The CNN-broadcasted event will help kick start what so far has been a languorous campaign to replace President Obama. Still, the Republican candidates are expected to refrain from unleashing attacks on one another as they introduce themselves to recession-weary voters. “This is a big deal, a pivot point in the campaign,’’ said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “With voters just starting to tune in, this will be where a lot of first impressions are made.’’

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Making their debut in a 2012 primary debate will be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. They will join former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, all of whom participated in a lower-profile South Carolina debate more than five weeks ago.

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson also participated in that forum but was not invited to Monday’s debate because he failed to register at least 2 percent support in the polls.
While the GOP primary is just getting off the ground, the stakes are always high for nationally televised appearances. For Romney, the debate is an opportunity to prove that he merits front-running status for more than fundraising prowess and a previous presidential lap. For Pawlenty, it’s a chance to package himself as the most appealing alternative to Romney. Gingrich needs to give voters, particularly queasy donors, a reason to take him seriously after most of his staff suddenly quit last week.

For the rest of the candidates, known more for their passion behind the podium than their likelihood of capturing the GOP nomination, the debate offers a shot at a elevation into a higher, more serious, echelon.

In an effort to stand out from the pack of lesser-known hopefuls, Santorum is planning to air the first radio spot of the campaign this week in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.

“Someone has to have the courage to go out and tell the American public we can’t afford the government that we have right now, and we need to cut it back across the board,’’ Santorum says in the ad, echoing what is likely to be a popular line of attack at the debate against the Democratic administration, along with the stubbornly high unemployment rate.

But while the debate marks the biggest milestone of the 2012 campaign so far, the Republican field is not complete. Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are still considering the race. A bid by Perry appears more likely now that two of his key political strategists have fled the Gingrich campaign.

One near-certain latecomer to the race will be Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China and ex-governor of Utah, who is expected to officially launch his campaign this month. His decision to turn down an invitation to Monday’s debate on the verge of his announcement and coming off his third trip to New Hampshire since May puzzled some Republican leaders.

“For a guy who has said he’s not going to campaign in Iowa and that New Hampshire is his launching pad, it seems like a missed opportunity,’’ Cullen said.

Both Huntsman and Romney, in fact, have said they will not compete in the Iowa straw poll in August, a traditional benchmark of a presidential campaign’s strength. It will be the second election cycle in a row in which two leading Republicans keep their distance from Iowa, where religious conservatives dominate the straw poll and the first-in-the-nation caucus. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani did not campaign aggressively there in 2007.

With more socially-moderate records than some of their rivals, Huntsman and Romney are pinning their campaigns on the next voting contest, in New Hampshire, and reinforcing the Granite State’s penchant for tolerating unconventional standard bearers. McCain, who parted with many in the GOP to champion overhauls of immigration and campaign finance laws, won the state’s primary in 2000 and 2008.

“New Hampshire has a history of getting excited about a candidate who identifies with the party but shows they can break from it too,’’ said Rep. Charlie Bass, who has been involved in the state’s primaries for three decades. “They need to show they can be a president, not just a party nominee.’’

The debate will air live from 8 to 10 p.m. from Saint Anselm College in Manchester. It will be moderated by CNN anchor John King, with questions from journalists from the two other media sponsors, WMUR and the New Hampshire Union Leader. Questions will also come from voters online, inside the debate hall and at town hall locations in three other cities.

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