Primary season finally starts

Last modified: 4/13/2011 12:00:00 AM
Get ready. Here they come.

After months of tiptoeing, Republican presidential hopefuls are starting to make their moves in the Granite State. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney announced the formation of an exploratory committee Monday at the University of New Hampshire. Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who is also formally exploring a White House run, will be here tomorrow and Friday.

By the end of the month, virtually every potential Republican candidate - from Herman Cain, an African-American pizza chain owner and radio host, to former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, a fiscal conservative who supports marijuana legalization - is scheduled to spend time here.

"I think we're starting to reach a tipping point," Dean Spiliotes, an independent New Hampshire political analyst, said yesterday.

Included in the wave of suitors is Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who is set to make his first stop in the state this year as he mulls entering the race. Barbour is scheduled for a reception tonight at a home in Bow, followed tomorrow by a breakfast in Manchester and a visit to a Hooksett gun shop.

"Since the beginning of the year everyone in political circles has known that a presidential campaign wouldn't get going in earnest until the end of April," said Mike Dennehy, Barbour's political adviser in the state.

"The season's getting into gear," said Dante Scala, an associate political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

"It's reaching a point with the activist corps in New Hampshire where it's time to pick sides," Scala said. "For voters, it's going to be months for them to make their decisions. But for activists, their time is now."

Two events this month are slated to attract a handful of potential candidates: a Tea Party rally at the State House on Friday and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation's Presidential Summit in Manchester on April 29.

Elsewhere, former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer is touring the state in a bus marked "Free to Lead." Ex-U.S. senator Rick Santorum will speak tomorrow at New England College in Henniker. Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, is set to ski Tuckerman's Ravine on April 23, two days after announcing his 2012 plans on the State House steps.

Spiliotes said it's about time the field started to narrow to the group that is serious about running given the amount of fundraising needed to be competitive on primary day, which is set for Feb. 14, 2012.

"We're talking about raising $30 million to $50 million to be competitive, and this is pretty late to start raising that kind of cash," he said.

Neil Levesque, executive director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, which schedules political speakers at St. Anselm College, said he's seen a shift in pursuit recently.

"We send out invites for speakers and usually make a follow-up call," Levesque said. "It's now changed where we're getting the call. It's a noticeable change."

After Newt Gingrich spoke last week, Levesque's upcoming speakers include U.S. Rep. Ron Paul on Friday and an April 29 spot for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who has said he may run if his father does not. Donald Trump is scheduled for sometime in June, and Barbour is also expected to speak there soon, Levesque said.

New Hampshire's open primary format, which allows undeclared voters to participate, could make it a different beast compared with the caucuses in Iowa, which can be dominated by evangelicals on the Republican side, Spiliotes said.

Early discourse influenced by the Tea Party could shift the race to the far right, he said. But with President Obama the presumed Democratic nominee, an influx of undeclared voters to New Hampshire's Republican primary could require candidates to seek support from a large group of moderates.

"You may have an interesting dichotomy," Spiliotes said. "What I'm looking for are those moments where candidates try to step away consciously to increase their odds."

While Republican hopefuls are gearing up, so too is the New Hampshire Democratic Party. Party officials took aim at Romney, the early New Hampshire frontrunner, yesterday by holding a press conference to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the passage of Massachusetts's health care reform law under his governorship, drawing comparisons between Romney's plan and the national reform law derided by Republicans.

Spokeswoman Holly Shulman said the state Democratic Party is excited to see Republicans moving toward officially entering the race.

"We welcome them all to New Hampshire to talk about their positions," she said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)


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