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Tea Party's Influence Felt In New Hampshire

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

A sure sign of spring in New Hampshire, at least every four years, the steady procession of would-be presidents. Republicans contending for their party's 2012 nomination find the political landscape there has changed.

New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers reports.

JOSH ROGERS: It wouldn't be a New Hampshire primary without somebody suggesting the outcome will be decided by a cadre of hard-core activists. Democrats say it; Republicans say it. Occasionally, it's even true. But somebody always says it.

JERRY DELEMUS: Whoever doesn't get the liberty vote will not win the primary. There's too many of us and we're too active.

ROGERS: That's Jerry DeLemus. He's chairman of the Granite State Liberty PAC, and a mover in Tea Party circles. He's already had face time with Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. He has no doubt candidates stand to lose if they don't give people like him an audience.

DELEMUS: And if anyone challenges that, go to the New Hampshire legislature and check out the numbers. It was the liberty groups that supported the candidates that got elected, and it will be the same in the primary.

ROGERS: The 2010 elections were great for Republicans here, particularly in the legislative races. The GOP went from near irrelevance to holding three to one majorities. Their very first act in Concord was to take up arms themselves.

DJ BETTENCOURT: We shall be allowed to protect ourselves on the House floor by having the ability to have a concealed weapon on the floor, in the anteroom and the gallery.

ROGERS: That was New Hampshire House Majority Leader DJ Bettencourt. Since then, the House has voted to eliminate all gun permits and to bar the enforcement of federal gun laws on New Hampshire-made weapons that aren't exported. It also voted to end compulsory school attendance and to urge the U.S. to leave the U.N. All of these bills passed by healthy margins and await action in the state Senate. But how they jive with the mood of New Hampshire's famously contrarian electorate is less than clear.

Pollster Andy Smith directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

ANDY SMITH: It tells you about the people who got elected. It doesn't tell you about the people who elected them.

ROGERS: Smith adds that any 2012 candidate who hopes to win here needs to recognize the primary electorate also includes moderates. And in a year when there's no Democratic primary, as much as a third of the vote could actually be cast by independents. The bottom line, says Smith, is that success will require winning over more than just the party's ascendant right wing.

SMITH: You can't gear you campaign to those folks, because if you do you're going to turn off the voters. I mean if you're going after the people that are writing birther amendments, for God's sake, by the time the general election comes around, you're going to be a laughing stock.

ROGERS: But at the same time, it's not just the Tea Party crowd that thinks a new crop of activists has the potential to play a pivotal role here. Former Republican National Committeeman Tom Rath has been a top adviser to President George W. Bush and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He thinks New Hampshire's high turnout alone - about 40 percent of eligible voters - are expected to cast ballots - makes it unlikely that any single class of voters will ever dominate the primary. But Rath adds that change is afoot in local GOP circles.

TOM RATH: People are more involved. It's not the usual suspects and you have to go to where the people are. And if there is the capacity in certain groups to pull people together, you're clearly going to go there.

ROGERS: In these early days of the primary, new conservative activists will find many hopefuls beating down their doors, particularly those who lack a big name or deep pockets. But potential candidates with a broader political footprint - a Mitt Romney or a Rudy Giuliani - may not be so quick to align themselves with this rising breed of political foot soldier.

For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord, New Hampshire.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Josh Rogers
Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000 and serves as NHPRâââ