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Paul, Santorum and Huntsman: The Final Sell Before NH

Monday, January 09, 2012

Going into the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Rick Santorum offers a plan to spur manufacturing; Jon Huntsman offers executive government experience at home and abroad; Ron Paul offers a return to strict constructionist constitutional conservatism. These three very different candidates all need the same thing: a strong showing in New Hampshire to keep their surprise momentum going—or, in Huntsman's case, to get their momentum started.

The Brian Lehrer Show took one last look at each candidate's pitch before the polls open on Tuesday.

Rick Santorum

"The one consistent thing you'll find is that he is never wrong," says John Baer of the Philadelphia Daily News, who's covered Rick Santorum in his home state of Pennsylvania as both Congressman and Senator. "No matter what you catch him on, no matter what he has said, he always has some defense, and a lot of times it actually sounds reasonable."

Santorum has most often had to defend his staunchly conservative positions on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion—though perhaps more controversial in the mainstream, these played well with Iowa's evangelical voters and helped propel Santorum in last week's Caucuses. Recognizing that he needs to appeal to fiscal as well as social conservatives, Santorum has also stressed a jobs plan that would subsidize manufacturing industries in the form of lower to non-existent taxes—something that also plays well in a state like Iowa.

Baer called it smart politics.

Santorum has staked out a different kind of economic policy by looking to really push manufacturing, which is smart because that's where most American jobs have been lost...It does separate him from most of the Republican field, and it is an area that doesn't get a lot of attention because there's so much controversy in his other areas having to do with abortion or gay marriage or sex.

One thing voters may have forgotten, however, and which the increased scrutiny that comes with being a top-tier candidate may remind, is that Santorum has had a long career in Washington where he was mostly unapologetic about securing earmarks and made well-documented efforts to fill K Street lobbying firms with Republican friendlies. Baer said that narrative could haunt him.

When he tries to portray himself as someone who is out to change Washington, sort of a newcoming outsider, you have to recall he was in the thick of what people see as the worst of Washington, and for a long time.

Jon Huntsman

Having put all his chips on New Hampshire, Tuesday is make-or-break for Jon Huntsman. The former Utah governor appears to have a great résumé, but has so far been hampered by his proximity to the Obama administration (Huntsman served as Ambassador to China) and overshadowed by that other well-spoken Mormon governor in the race.

Thomas Burr of the Salt Lake Tribune notes another overlap between Huntsman and Romney: Huntsman too has experience as a successful executive in the private sector. But we never seem to hear much about that from the candidate himself.

He likes to cite better his time as governor when Utah was named the best-managed state, the best for business environment. He seems to think that one actually clicks a little more with voters who say, okay, yes you have private experience, but I've also done it when I've been in leadership, which is what you want a president to do...He still has to lead from executive experience in government, and that's what Huntsman talks about more.

New Hampshire will be the first real test of whether voters are hearing that message, and a poor showing could effectively end Huntsman's campaign. Polling for Huntsman in other states has been mostly anemic over the past year; he's perceived as more moderate than the rest of the Republican field. Matthew Burbank, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, says that he's earned this distinction in spite of many policies he adopted as governor.

He's done a number of things that would appeal very much to conservatives. However, in the presidential contest, that's really not where he's positioned himself, and one of the reasons he hasn't done as well in the polls is that he doesn't have that strong appeal across the board to economic and social conservatives.

Ron Paul

Coming off a strong showing in Iowa, Ron Paul looks set to capture second place in the New Hampshire primary. Is this libertarianism's moment in the sun?

Paul has long enjoyed the most enthusiastic, if not widespread, support. His followers flood YouTube with pro-Paul videos and debate highlights; they're especially vocal at campaign events; surprisingly, many of them are also among the youngest eligible voters, while Paul is the oldest candidate in the race.

To get a sense of why Paul's message resonates with so many people this election cycle, Brian Lehrer opened the phones to callers who favored Ron Paul and/or identified as libertarian. One caller, John, lauded Paul's plan to let under-26-year olds opt out of Social Security, asking why he should put money into a system that's not guaranteed to pay out when he needs it. Brian Lehrer asked John how small he'd like to shrink government—whether he saw the plan as a step toward totally phasing out Social Security, and whether he'd be in favor of privatizing other services traditionally provided by government.

John hedged on the answer, which illustrated both the varying degrees of libertarianism, and how support for Paul could have less to do with embracing all of his ideas than embracing the philosophical challenge he's presenting to Americans.

Let's stop all the bad stuff government is doing, then we'll talk about building the schools, building the roads. Just recognize that this has to be a conversation, that these things aren't guarantees. We can't just spend money on things assuming that's what people need.

Another caller, Frank, said he's aligned with Ron Paul for his consistency (something Paul touts often, and perhaps his biggest selling point to disillusioned young voters) and, in some cases, his prescience.

He predicted what was going to happen years in advance. Nobody, any of these other Republican candidates in the last election cycle standing at the debate in Michigan saying, "Oh, the economy is in great shape." Ron Paul has been screaming about this for years. That's why I support him: his economic positions and his anti-war stance.

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