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Will New Hampshire Still Be A Make Or Break Primary?

BOSTON — The Republican presidential candidates will debate in Hanover, N.H., at Dartmouth College Tuesday evening. It is the first debate held in the state since June.

A new poll by Harvard University and St. Anselm College shows Mitt Romney leading the pack in New Hampshire. The other issue at hand is whether New Hampshire is still a make or break primary.

Chris Buck thinks the only reason some candidates are in New Hampshire is because there’s a debate.

“The candidates are making a very rational decision: ‘I need to appeal to a national audience. I need to get on TV, and I need to get in debates,’ ” Buck says.

Sean Mamone, an independent voter in New Hampshire (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Sean Mamone, an independent voter in New Hampshire (Fred Thys/WBUR)

And so what’s happening, Buck says, is that candidates this year are not bothering with campaigning in New Hampshire.

Buck knows this all too well. His candidate, Thad McCotter, tried it the old-fashioned way, campaigning for months in Iowa and New Hampshire. McCotter is a Republican congressman from Michigan who never did well enough in the polls to get invited to any of the debates. Last month, he dropped out before most people had ever heard of him, leaving Buck without a job.

“I think we’re seeing the demise, the slow demise of the New Hampshire primary,” Buck says. “And the reason I say that is because if you are a campaign manager, you are going to advise your client, the candidate, that the thing they most need to do is appeal to the national media and appeal to the polls. That is the clear path to success.”

But most political operatives still think New Hampshire matters. History is their guide. Ever since there’s been a New Hampshire primary, no Republican presidential candidate has ever gotten the nomination without coming first or second in the state.

Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state Republican party, thinks New Hampshire is actually going to matter more than ever this year because it’s so similar to the way the rest of the country is going to vote.

“There’s just no example of any Republican candidate winning the nomination and bypassing New Hampshire,” Cullen says. “If you’re interested in actually winning the nomination, it just doesn’t seem to be the way to go.”

Cullen says since New Hampshire is an open primary, “a registered independent or somebody who’s undeclared can vote in either primary. There’s no Democratic contest to speak of, so anyone who is politically minded is going to participate in the Republican primary.”

Studying the choices of the voters in New Hampshire, Cullen believes, will give us a good indication of how the Republican candidates will fare in the national contest. For example, take Sean Mamone, an independent blue-collar guy who is Mont Vernon’s deputy fire chief. He’s got pumpkins drying out in the cool autumn breeze blowing across his deck, and campaign literature piling up in his mailbox.

But he has ruled out Ron Paul and Rick Perry.

“[Rick Perry] appears to be too in with the Tea Party, possibly,” Mamone says. “And he just seems to be a little too far to the right. I don’t want to swing back to the left, because financially, this country and this state can’t afford it. We need some moderation.”

Mamone says beyond casting out Perry and Paul, he doesn’t know yet who he’ll vote for.

If New Hampshire’s independent voters are a good bellwether for the nation, then Romney’s chances are looking very good. Nettie Fiorini is an independent voter in Rochester. In recent weeks, she’s been impressed by Romney’s performance in televised debates.

“He just presents so eloquently, and I think as time has gone on, he is looking more polished,” Fiorini says.

Fiorini is pretty much consistent with most voters who say they’re going to vote in the Republican primary are right now. Rick Perry’s fortunes have tumbled in the polls. New Hampshire’s independent voters have gotten a taste, and they’ve spit him out. Meanwhile, the more they try Romney, they more like his flavor.

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