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New Hampshire - The Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party

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As I head off to New Hampshire for the Primary which is on Tuesday, one thing is clear - the battle for the soul of the Republican Party continues.

Some have criticised the early roles that Iowa and New Hampshire play in the Republican nomination process, however in many ways these two contests epitomise the two groups who are battling for the soul of the Republican party - the traditional Republican wing and the Evangelical Christian wing.

Iowa is a good example of a midwestern state where the Evangelical Christians are the key to success for any potential Republican nominee.

In Iowa - not part of the original strategy - Mitt Romney pulled off an amazing win in a squeaker of a race with Rick Santorum hot on his heels.

New Hampshire is a totally different cup of tea. Republicans in New Hampshire are strong fiscal conservatives and socially more liberal than their Iowa counterparts.

New Hampshire is a state where the voters are fiercely independent.

They are made of hard scrabble New England stock and more libertarian and less religiously conservative.

Don't forget this region of America known as 'New' England is where a hardy band of English men and woman risked life and limb to cross the Atlantic to seek religious freedom landing at nearby Plymouth Rock.

Even the names of its towns still echo that history - Peterborough, Manchester, Plymouth and the list goes on.

The state motto "Live Free or Die" expresses the essence of the people of the Granite State.

They believe in self-reliance and non-interference.

This is a state with a Democratic governor, one Democratic senator, one Republican senator and two Republican representatives in congress.

It is the 42nd most populous state.

New Hampshire is also a state that has passed a law guaranteeing gay marriage rights.

Like Iowa, New Hampshire is a small state were voters expect to be up close and personal with the candidates.

This is also a state where pounding the pavement and visiting community centers and local restaurants can make a real impact in the outcome of the race. Jon Huntsman is putting this principle to the test.

In 2008, John McCain who was running on empty at the time became the Republican nominee by pressing the flesh in New Hampshire.

Hillary Clinton also pulled off a New Hampshire surprise by beating Barack Obama just after he trounced both Clinton and John Edwards in Iowa.

So it is fitting that the traditional wing of the Republican Party gets its chance to weigh in on their choice of the nominee.

Romney was governor in the neighbouring state of Massachusetts and has a vacation home in New Hampshire, so its voters know him well.

New Hampshire voters seem to be rallying around their neighbour. Although the local papers have not been so kind - The Manchester Union Leader has endorsed Newt Gingrich and the neighbouring state's Boston Globe has endorsed Jon Huntsman.

Right now Romney holds a daunting lead over the rest of the pack with 40.2% almost 19 points ahead of the nearest competitor - Ron Paul with 20.8 % , Rick Santorum 10.6 %, Jon Huntsman 9.4 %, Newt Gingrich 8.6 % and Rick Perry 1.0 %.

All this means is that Romney is unlikely to lose here, although it is important that he has a resounding victory here since this is his home turf.

This sort of victory would give him the momentum and additional support he needs in the next race in South Carolina where he is likely to have a tougher time.

The real race in New Hampshire is for second place. Iowa did not do much to narrow the field, which is to Romney's advantage.

Santorum's Iowa bounce seems to have been short lived as he has had trouble selling his brand of conservative values to skeptical New England Yankee conservatives.

Right now, the other five candidates are splitting 50.4 % of the vote and the Republicans who believe in a strong social agenda are trying to come together behind one candidate other than Romney.

This also means that the chances for the other nominees to overtake him are growing slimmer by the day.

Although the debates and the primaries and caucuses arguably may make the ultimate nominee a better candidate, the longer this process goes on the more likely it is to damage and scar the eventual winner and make it harder for him to move to the middle to attract independent voters - those who really decide general elections.

New Hampshire could produce a surprise with Ron Paul, Rick Santorum or Jon Huntsman coming in a strong second.

If Santorum has any hope of overtaking Romney, he must have a strong showing in NH since part of his argument is that he can win in a swing state with working class voters.

If he shows a strong second place finish and he can lay exclusive claim to the Evangelical Christian vote he does have a chance to over take Romney down the line.

Just today, Gary Bauer, president of "American Values", another leading Evangelical voice, endorsed Santorum.

If Ron Paul has a strong second place showing he will still not be a true threat to Romney but such a showing almost guarantees him a prime spot at the Republican National Convention in Tampa - allowing him to affect the party's agenda.

Paul and his supporters could also threaten the success of the eventual Republican nominee if they fail to fall in line behind the party's choice - third Party Anyone?

If Huntsman pulls a 'Santorum Surprise' and comes in a strong second, it is still not clear he has the money or organisation to parlay this into a real opportunity to enter the fray in a meaningful way.

New Hampshire will set the stage for South Carolina where we may see just how long this process is likely to last.

Like Iowa, New Hampshire is not suffering from the high levels of unemployment experienced by states like South Carolina, Florida and Nevada.

These next three states are much more economically and demographically diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire - they are all important swing states and will also be battle grounds in the general election.

In 2008, Obama beat McCain in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada and McCain won South Carolina in 2008.

So in less than a day we will see whether the rank and file in the Republican Party are ready to fall in love and line up behind Mitt or are still open to a flirtation with one of the others.

This blog can also be read on Sky News.

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