MANCHESTER, N.H. - With just hours to go before tonight's ABC News-Yahoo News-WMUR Republican primary debate in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney has never looked stronger than he does right now.
He's built up a huge lead in the Granite State. Two new polls out yesterday confirmed that.The famously flat line of his support in Gallup polling is trending upwards. And, in South Carolina - repeat, South Carolina - the former Massachusetts governor is leading the pack with almost 40 percent of the vote, while the only southerner in the contest, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has fallen to 5 percent.
It's remarkable what an 8-vote victory over an underfunded and unknown candidate in Iowa can do to momentum.
The only question now: Can anyone to stop him? And, will one of the candidate's use tonight's showdown at Saint Anselm College in Manchester to do it? Tune in at 9 p.m. ET to find out (more details on how to watch below).
SANTORUM'S RISK AND REWARD. The candidate with the most room to grow - and the most to lose tonight - is Rick Santorum. After watching the other conservative alternatives to Romney rise and fall, the former Pennsylvania senator is sitting in the right place at the right time.
But, Santorum won't get a clean shot at Romney. Instead, he's just as likely to have to defend himself against attacks from Ron Paul who is struggling to hold onto second place here in New Hampshire and is in the hunt in South Carolina. In Nashua, N.H. yesterday, Paul questioned Santorum's conservative credentials saying, "four or five times he voted to raise the national debt, so that tells you how conservative he is."
The Paul campaign is also releasing an ad in South Carolina that calls Santorum "another serial hypocrite who can't be trusted." Ouch. So, with Paul and Santorum potentially engaged in battle, can Romney simply float above the fray?
That all depends on what Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman decide to do.
WILL HUNTSMAN SLASH AND BURN? For Huntsman, who has staked his entire campaign on a strong finish here in New Hampshire, there should be some incentive to go on the attack. Yet, given his poor standing in the polling in the state (he's at just 7 percent in the latest WMUR poll), it actually makes little sense for him to try to skewer the frontrunner.
No amount of pushing or pleading or attacking is going to change the fact that three days out from a primary he's trapped in a tie for a distant third place. The former Ambassador to China has done the hard sell in New Hampshire - the only problem is that no one is buying it. If he wants to try again in 2016 - or even angle for a post in a Romney Administration - it does him no good to slash and burn the potential GOP nominee.
THE GINGRICH STRATEGY. Gingrich, meanwhile, is the wildcard here. We know that the former House Speaker loathes the way Romney has run his campaign, even branding him a liar in an interview before the Iowa caucus. Since last Tuesday, however, the former Speaker has toned "Reagan conservative" and Romney's 'moderate Massachusetts" record.
So which Gingrich will show up on stage tonight at St. Anselm College? The angry attack dog, or the more cerebral professor? Remember, Gingrich his own reputation to think about as well. If he is to have any chance of recovering his faltering campaign, he can't afford to be labeled as the bitter, sore loser.
In the end, Romney may once again benefit from a divided field of GOP candidates who are struggling to win the mantle of the consensus "anti-Mitt" alternative.
ABC's Jake Tapper previewed tonight's debate on "Good Morning America" today. According to Tapper, Mitt Romney "has to be unflappable." WATCH: http://abcn.ws/x3bi4b ABC's John Berman predicts that tonight's face-off has "all the makings of political mayhem." WATCH: http://abcn.ws/AphpkM
DEBATE DETAILS. ABC News, Yahoo! News, and WMUR-TV are joining forces to host a Republican presidential candidate debate in New Hampshire tonight. The debate occurs just four days after the Iowa caucuses and three days before the Granite State's first in the nation primary. It will be the only broadcast network debate in primetime before the primary airing from 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET from Saint Anselm College. The debate will air live nationally on the ABC Television Network and locally on WMUR-TV and will be moderated by ABC's Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos; they will be joined by WMUR-TV anchor Josh McElveen.
Won't be near a T.V. tonight? Not to worry - the debate is also streaming on OtusNews.com, our new site for all things politics - as well as Yahoo.com and ABCNews.com. Check it our livestreaming on the ABC iPhone or iPad app. Terry Moran will be hosting the livestreaming program - and will be joined by Yahoo bureau chief David Chalian in New Hampshire and ABC News Political Director Amy Walter - and guests Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress and Matt Lewis from the Daily Caller. We will also have live blog with ABC News and Yahoo! reporters and a rapid fact check and latest reporting all night. Join the conversation with #NHDebate and get instant feedback from campaign representatives in the virtual spinroom by also adding #spinroom http://abcnews.go.com/politics/otus
PODIUM ORDER: From far left to far right: Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry
DEMOCRATIC COUNTER-PROGRAMMING. The Democratic National Committee e-mails The Note: "DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and NH Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley will hold a press conference at Saint Anselm College's Institute of Politics to discuss Mitt Romney's real record as governor of neighboring Massachusetts. The central question of this election is going to be who will restore economic security for the middle class. Mitt Romney believes that we can just cut our way to prosperity." Where? Lobby of Saint Anselm College Institute of Politics, 100 Saint Anselm Drive, Manchester, N.H. When? Today at 4:00 p.m. ET
THIS WEEK ON "THIS WEEK." This Sunday, George Stephanopoulos returns to the anchor chair on "This Week." Just hours after moderating the ABC News Republican Presidential Debate in New Hampshire with Diane Sawyer, and two days before Granite State voters head to the polls in the nation's first primary, George hosts a special edition of "This Week" live from Manchester, N.H. http://abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/
-After the GOP field faces off on Saturday night, how is the Obama campaign preparing to take on the eventual Republican nominee? Who do they see as their toughest opponent? Those questions for our headliner, top Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod.
-And four years ago, Mike Huckabee rode to victory at the Iowa caucuses on a wave of support from Christian conservatives. On Sunday, George asks the former Arkansas governor and Fox News contributor for his take on whether Rick Santorum can ride a similar wave through New Hampshire and beyond.
-Then, George leads a powerhouse roundtable in New Hampshire, with ABC's George Will, Republican strategist Mary Matalin, ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper, as they dissect Saturday's debate.
-Plus, a look at your voice as ABC News senior political correspondent Jonathan Karl breaks down how the campaign is playing out on social media.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: BY THE NUMBERS. According to the results of a new WMUR New Hampshire poll released yesterday, Romney "holds a commanding lead in the weekend before the New Hampshire primary. Rick Santorum has gotten a modest bounce out of his Iowa success and is now in a position to challenge Ron Paul for the second place slot. However, a third of likely Republican primary voters are still undecided about who they will eventually support." http://bit.ly/rePnM8
Here's the breakdown:
Romney - 44%
Paul - 20%
Gingrich - 8%
Santorum - 8%
Huntsman - 7%
Perry - 1%
ROMNEY WARNS HIS LEAD COULD 'DISAPPEAR.' ABC's Emily Friedman reports from Tilton, N.H.: Mitt Romney is not taking his surging poll numbers for granted, warning a room full of voters this evening that his lead could "disappear overnight." "People in New Hampshire expect you to work hard, to earn it," said Romney at a spaghetti dinner in Tilton, just 35 miles outside Manchester. "And we're in a real battle right now. I know some pollsters say I'm doing real well. Let me tell you, those polls, they can just disappear overnight." "What you say to a pollster is a bit like going on a date," said Romney. "It's like well, I might try this but you know, getting married, that's something else. So we need to make sure you're working real hard and will keep working real hard." Taking a few questions from voters, with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at his side, Romney was asked whether the GOP candidates will ever be able to "come together to get Obama out of the White House." The voter remarked that he had seen Gingrich speak yesterday and was glad he had not said anything negative about Romney. "If I'm not the nominee, I'll be supporting the nominee and working hard for the nominee," Romney responded. "And by the way, I know that in the process of the primary, in the primary process, we'll be going after each other. As someone said long ago, politics ain't bean bags. We'll be going back and forth, and when this is all over we ought to be able to hug. " http://abcn.ws/AEbZ3t
SANTORUM ENCOUNTERS SOME UNFRIENDLY VOTERS. GOP contender Rick Santorum, fresh off a second-place victory in Iowa, was met with curiosity and sometimes animosity in New Hampshire Friday, as the former Pennsylvania senator tried to prove he was not a one-note social conservative, but the only candidate capable of taking on Mitt Romney for the nomination, ABC's Russell Goldman and Shushannah Walshe report. Voters here not only challenged him on his principles, but also his record, which includes support of earmarks and questions about his past dealings with lobbyists and campaign contributors. Rather than the friendly crowds that he regularly found in Iowa, in New Hampshire he was routinely challenged on those issues and the social conservative bona fides on which he is staking his candidacy. Speaking at a school in Dublin, N.H., Santorum was asked three times about his opposition to same-sex marriage. b"Marriage is not a right," he said. "Not everybody can marry everybody else. I mean, it's not an unalienable right. It's a privilege that is given to society, by society for a reason, because there is an intrinsic benefit to society to hold up men and women to come together, to be encouraged to be married, to get privileges and honor in society, privilege in society." http://abcn.ws/zKyoBw
GINGRICH: O.K. IF FREDDIE MAC RECORDS WERE PUBLIC. Freddie Mac official says the corporation does not mind if Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich releases the broad details of his consulting contracts with the company, according to a report by Bloomberg today, according to ABC's Elicia Dover. But Gingrich told the press today on a campaign stop in Newport, N.H., that even though Freddie Mac has given him permission, it isn't up to him to release the documents because he is no longer a part of Gingrich Group, described on its website as a strategic consulting company. Gingrich consolidated all of his businesses when he became a candidate, according to the campaign's spokesman, R.C. Hammond. Gingrich told the press in November that he would be willing to release the Freddie Mac records but would be not be able to because of confidentiality agreements with Freddie Mac. Today Gingrich told ABC News that he would be "perfectly happy" with the Freddie Mac records to be released, but the Center for Health Transformation (CHT) had control over the documents because he sold his share of the CHT and Gingrich Group to the CHT on May 10, 2011. http://abcn.ws/whtppd
NOTED: GINGRICH PLANS TO HIT ROMNEY ON ABORTION. The Washington Examiner's Byron York reports: "Newt Gingrich plans to open up what could be a bitter new front in his fight with Mitt Romney with an ad accusing Romney of allowing taxpayer dollars to fund abortion in Massachusetts. The new ad will run in South Carolina 'soon,' according the Gingrich campaign. The topic of abortion has emerged as a particularly contentious issue between the Gingrich and Romney campaigns. Gingrich's accusation is that Romney's universal health care plan in Massachusetts explicitly provides for taxpayer funding of abortions. Romney responds by arguing that a longstanding Massachusetts Supreme Court decision, which as governor he had no power to overturn, forced the state to provide abortion aid to poor women. Romney did not support the policy, his campaign says." http://bit.ly/zuEvsZ
EVANGELICALS WORRY ABOUT ROMNEY. "Dismayed by the prospect of Mitt Romney as the Republican presidential nominee, conservative Christian leaders are intensifying discussions about jointly backing an alternative candidate from a field reshaped by Rick Santorum's strong performance in Iowa," The New York Times' Erik Eckholm writes. "The plan disclosed this week for dozens of conservative Christian leaders and political strategists to meet in Texas next Friday and Saturday, a week before the South Carolina primary, is the latest of several such efforts in the last six weeks to seek an elusive unity. Among the conveners of next week's gathering are luminaries of the evangelical movement, including James C. Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, and Donald E. Wildmon, the retired president of the American Family Association. Other evangelical leaders are holding discussions and raising the possibility of later meetings if the gathering in Texas does not yield a consensus. But time is running short. Like evangelical voters, the leaders of the religious right have been divided over which Republican to back, dispersing their support in a way that has helped Mr. Romney and undercut their influence on the nominating process." http://nyti.ms/zJAcz0
RICK PERRY UNWINDS BEFORE N.H. DEBATE. Ready, aim fire. That's apparently Texas Gov. Rick Perry's idea of relaxation before returning to the campaign trail this weekend. Ahead of tonight's debate, Perry took a few moments to himself at an Austin-area shooting range. "Just relaxing a bit @ Red's Range before we leave for New Hampshire!" @governorperry tweeted Friday along with a photo of himself wearing a green sweatshirt and a baseball cap with a firearm in hand. On the campaign trail, Perry, a staunch defender of second amendment rights, has not been shy about talking about his "long love affair" with guns. http://abcn.ws/wIY80S
THE SONGS OF THE TRAIL. ABC's John Berman goes out on a limb: If you are like most people, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mitt Romney is … untamed stallion. OK, maybe not, but "untamed stallion" is a lyric from one of the Romney team's favorite campaign rally songs, "Born Free" by Kid Rock. Now, in the 2012 GOP race, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania use no music at their rallies - it's hard to coordinate with the sweater vests - but you can hear Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" at former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's rallies and "American Ride" by Toby Keith along the campaign trail with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who loves his country music. But for some campaigns, music is not easy listening. Jackson Browne didn't like it when Sen. John McCain used his "Running on Empty" in a 2008 campaign ad and McCain had to settle out of court. Liberal singer/songwriter Tom Petty issued a cease and desist request to Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann for using his "American Girl" song at her rallies without his permission, but allowed Hillary Clinton to use the same song for her 2008 run for the White House. http://abcn.ws/xrAZ3o
DISPATCHES FROM THE TRAIL. Check out our new political website OTUSNews.com ( www.Otusnews.com) The Note ( http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/the-note/) and ABC News/Politics ( http://abcnews.go.com/politics) and follow our reporters in the field on Twitter:
Newt Gingrich : ABC's Elicia Dover ( @EliciaDover)
Jon Huntsman and New Hampshire: ABC's Susan Archer ( @TheOnlyArcher)
Ron Paul : ABC's Jason Volack ( @Jason_Volack)
Rick Perry : ABC's Arlette Saenz ( @ArletteSaenz)
Mitt Romney : ABC's Emily Friedman ( @EmilyABC)
Check out The Note's Futures Calendar: http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV
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