In New Hampshire, GOP Race Is Fluid

Republican presidential hopeful, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, speaks at a campaign stop in Bedford, N.H. Saturday, Dec.1, 2007.
New Hampshire has become the hot spot for action in the Republican presidential race, just like Iowa is for the Democrats.

GOP candidates Mitt Romney, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are battling hard for supremacy in New Hampshire, while Mike Huckabee is moving up in polls and long-shot Ron Paul is maintaining a core of support in the final month before the nation's leadoff primary.

That could lead to a fractured outcome.

"I think all five of those candidates will end up in double digits on the Republican side," predicted Fergus Cullen, the state GOP chairman, underscoring the high level of activity in New Hampshire and the scrambled nature of the contest.

Public surveys show Romney with a sizable lead while McCain, the Arizona senator, and Giuliani, the former New York mayor, are in a tight race behind him. But private polling indicates McCain has solidified his second-place standing as Giuliani has slipped. Huckabee is gaining support, fueled in part by his ascent in Iowa, while Paul, the Texas congressman with a libertarian bent, trails.

Until recently, Republican strategists said Romney appeared to be in the strongest position to win the nomination.

The former Massachusetts governor spent more than a year laying the groundwork for back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. He led in Iowa for months but now is battling the come-from-behind Huckabee in a two-way contest growing more fierce by the day. Polls show a dead-heat, and Romney's campaign is about to begin running negative ads against Huckabee.

Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator, also is trying to compete in Iowa; he's not a factor in New Hampshire.

Should Romney win Iowa's caucuses on Jan. 3, he'd come into New Hampshire in a commanding position and with a strong ground-game; Huckabee's candidacy could be over. But were Romney to lose in Iowa, GOP strategists say he would be wounded but still able to compete in next-up New Hampshire on Jan. 8 because of the foundation he's laid.

If Huckabee triumphs in Iowa, these strategists say, it's unclear whether he can leverage that success into financial and organizational strength in the narrow window between Iowa and New Hampshire. He has grass-roots support in New Hampshire but not much of an organization.

McCain and Giuliani, who aren't campaigning full-bore in Iowa, will be waiting in New Hampshire.

Having defeated George W. Bush in the state in 2000, McCain has maintained a base of hard-core backers and built upon the organization left behind from his first race. He has pinned his second bid on the state and, this time, secured the coveted endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Sensing opportunity, Giuliani stepped up his activity in New Hampshire a month ago with more frequent visits and heavy TV advertising. Despite such efforts, his support recently slipped. He also lacks the mature organizational structure of Romney and McCain.

Adding to the uncertainty of the GOP contest here is the outcome of the Democratic race in Iowa, which could influence New Hampshire's independents; they can vote in either party's primary. In 2000, they flocked to the Republican matchup and helped McCain defeat Bush, but they might be more attracted to the Democratic contest this time around given its celebrity field.

In Iowa, Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton is in a high-stakes three-way contest with Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Should Clinton win the caucuses, analysts argue, independents will be less likely to participate in the Democratic primary because they will conclude she's unstoppable given her double-digit lead in New Hampshire. That could help McCain or Giuliani, both of whom attract moderates and independents.

But if Obama, whose message of optimism appeals to independents, beats Clinton in the first contest, the swing voting group could swarm to that high-octane race. Romney, who has geared his campaign toward the conservative GOP base, could benefit from that scenario.

All that adds up to a wildly unpredictable New Hampshire race.

"It's like a bowl of Jell-O that hasn't settled and firmed up yet," said David Carney, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire who isn't openly backing a candidate. "There's still a lot of tire-kicking going on."

Indeed, about one in 10 likely GOP primary voters say they are undecided, while many more say they still could change their minds before the Jan. 8 primary.

Karen Foulke, 46, and Joanne Richards, 55, two Republicans from East Hampstead, are among them. Both are leaning toward Giuliani but caution they aren't yet certain. "I just really valued his leadership in terms of 9/11," Foulke said. Added Richards: "He grasped the situation and came through. He impressed me totally."

Independents also are torn.

"You know, you've got a lot of good people," said Peter Wibber, 64, a Nashua independent who voted for Bush in 2000. He had high praise for Romney and McCain but fretted: "I'm still on the fence."