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In N.H., GOP Contenders Look to Chip Away at Romney’s Lead

January 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The New Hampshire primary began Tuesday in the tiny hamlet of Dixville Notch where the traditional first votes were cast at midnight. Hours later, the first-in-the-nation primary took over the rest of the state. Gwen Ifill reports.
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GWEN IFILL: They voted in New Hampshire today in the first primary of this presidential election year. By all accounts, the Granite State was Mitt Romney’s to lose, with the rest of the Republican field trying to hold down his margin of victory.

At the very moment New Hampshire primary day finally arrived, the tiny hamlet of Dixville Notch cast its tradition first votes at midnight — the outcome: a tie between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, at two votes apiece.

MAN: I’m very happy with the results, very close — very close election.

GWEN IFILL: Hours later, as voters came out in earnest, the question was, how close would this one really be?

CROWD: We want Mitt! We want Mitt!

GWEN IFILL: The scene around Romney, who has led by wide margins in every pre-election poll, was chaotic this morning…

MITT ROMNEY (R): Hi, guys. Very exciting.

GWEN IFILL: … with plenty of supporters were on hand to greet him outside a Manchester school, one of the state’s largest polling places.

Huntsman, whose standing has steadily risen during the last week, hoped to duplicate the Dixville Notch results elsewhere in the state and perhaps surge into second place. He skipped Iowa to focus on New Hampshire.

JON HUNTSMAN (R): I feel good because we have done everything humanly possible over the last many months. Now you let it sit with the voters of this state, who I know are all informed, and they’re going to turn out and make a decision that they feel strongly about.

GWEN IFILL: Romney’s other rivals also worked to chip away at his lead as they fought through the Election Day media crush. But none of them went as far as to predict an upset.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich actually conceded a Romney victory last night.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): I’m probably going to predict Mitt will be first, but maybe a very, very weak first.

GWEN IFILL: Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who placed third in Iowa, worked to hold on to his solid second-place poll standing here to come in as New Hampshire runner-up.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum finished in a virtual tie with Romney in Iowa and has spent more time in New Hampshire than any candidate other than Romney and Huntsman. He said today the focus should be on who is in the best position to defeat President Obama.

RICK SANTORUM (R): Vote for the candidate who has the best chance of matching up against Barack Obama, winning this election with broad, bold contrasts. We need to make Barack Obama the issue in this campaign.

GWEN IFILL: The president is also on the ballot today, but unchallenged by any major Democrat. When his supporters took their turn behind the polling booth curtains in Dixville Notch, he, naturally, won.

BOY: I’d like to show you my shirt.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: I like that. I’m glad you’re not 21 — or actually 35 yet.

GWEN IFILL: Next up on the campaign trail is South Carolina, where Texas Governor Rick Perry, who skipped New Hampshire, is already campaigning and attacking Romney. The Republican primary there is 11 days away.

Well, Judy, you know, actually, everybody is focusing on South Carolina. And some folks are leaving for that destination, including Newt Gingrich later tonight. But what’s happening here in New Hampshire is shaping up to be an interesting race for second place, including someone like Jon Huntsman, who really doesn’t have a chance to survive or at least a path for survival much after New Hampshire.

We did something interesting today, Judy. We called back the couple that we talked to for last night’s piece, Tom and Melindi Byrne. You remember them?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sure.

GWEN IFILL: Don and Melindi Byrne.

We talked to them about — they were undecided. They had changed their minds. And so we asked them, who did you really both for? And they said, both of them, they voted for Jon Huntsman. So, if those independents made up their mind, maybe he will see some sort of a surge tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Gwen, we talk about expectations. And the expectations have changed. This has been a tough couple of days for Mitt Romney. Who sets those expectations?

I think people watching this crazy process often want to know, who is the great setter of numbers of who comes in first, second and third and by how much?

GWEN IFILL: Well, you know, it was only a couple of months ago when we started — if you look at it on the graph, you see that Mitt Romney has been leading by multiple double digits for a long, long time.

And in the last week, he’s begun to lose some ground, lose some ground. So people begin to think, if you don’t win by 30 points, then you didn’t win, especially if you’ve run in Massachusetts — in New Hampshire before, you were the governor of Massachusetts.

But on the other hand, the expectations for Jon Huntsman are also high because he spent so much time campaigning here and skipped New Hampshire. So that’s where the expectations game — sometimes, the candidates set them themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about somebody like Ron Paul, Gwen, who made a big effort in Iowa, came in a decent third, a close third, right behind Romney and Santorum, and who has been really giving it all — it his all this week?

GWEN IFILL: Well, the problem is he hasn’t exactly been giving it his all. He didn’t come straight here from Iowa. He took a couple of days off.

He’s been showing up and campaigning, but not with the kind of vigor that we saw him campaigning with in Iowa. And his numbers have begun to reflect that as well. But as we have talked about a lot, Ron Paul voters aren’t going anywhere. And he today came out and actually started defending Romney against the attacks on him by some of the other candidates.

So that’s a curious turn of events. And we’re waiting to see what that means.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about Santorum, the man who did come in a very close second in Iowa? There’s some discussion now about whether he should have competed in New Hampshire or gone straight on to South Carolina.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s interesting. Rick Santorum really did get a second look his first few days here in New Hampshire. Voters came out to his events. They wanted to know who he was. But he didn’t have an extra dime to spend on television ads.

In fact, the only people who were on television here were Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney. So if you didn’t already know these guys, there was no way to know them. So he’s going on find himself in a warmer bath of water in South Carolina, where there are more social conservatives. And that wasn’t the case here in New Hampshire, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Gwen, you have covered a couple of these New Hampshire primaries, at least.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does it feel different this year, 2012? What’s different?

GWEN IFILL: This one is actually really a lot less vigorous than they have been in the past, in part because we only have one party in a real competitive situation. We didn’t have that four years ago.

You remember, Barack Obama, we thought this time four years ago, that he was going to win the New Hampshire primary. And Hillary Clinton came out of nowhere. So there was a little drama. It’s not as dramatic this time. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about. We’re going to find out why in just a moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Great. And I know you have got a guest you’re going to talk to there.

GWEN IFILL: That’s right.