What does New Hampshire mean to the presidential race?

Panel of local experts weighs in


This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," October 15, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

BRET BAIER, HOST: Welcome back to beautiful downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  We're at Popover's bakery and cafe talking with a group of local political experts about the race here in New Hampshire. We're pleasured to be joined by Kevin Landrigan, senior political reporter of the Nashua Telegraph, James Pindell from WMUR, New Hampshire and Andy Smith, University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Thank you guys for being here.

Rockingham County is a swing county. We're here because it's a very interesting place. New Hampshire as a state that went for president Obama last time. He won all 10 counties in New Hampshire. But Rockingham had the smallest margin, just about 1,500 votes. Here in Portsmouth, it's a Democratic stronghold, but Rockingham is kind of more of a Republican place. Andy, how does this place stack up in the state?

ANDY SMITH, UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE: Well, it's the second largest county in the state in terms of population. And it's really interesting because there's this part of it here over the sea coast -- it is Democratic -- but the bulk of it, the part of the county that's bedroom communities for Boston, largely Republican. There's a part in southwestern Rockingham County, the Democrats refer to as the Bermuda Triangle where Democratic candidates go to die. So it's a critical county for Republicans to win, and I think they're going to have to get -- Romney has to get 55 percent or more of the vote in Rockingham County to really do well in the state.

BAIER: James?

JAMES PINDELL, WMUR-TV: You see that intensity with the Romney campaign. They know they have to build up big gains in the county, which is basically one out of four New Hampshire residents live in. You can see it in the campaign trail. In the last two weeks Paul Ryan has been in Rockingham County. Scott Walker has been in Rockingham County. Reince Preibus in Rockingham County.

BAIER: To that point, Kevin, the focus on New Hampshire, you guys are always used to being a focus, but boy, now it really is a focus again.

KEVIN LANDRIGAN, NASHUA TELEGRAPH: Republicans haven't won in 2004, 2008, so there's a little winning streak going for Democrats. And even here in Rockingham County, we had the president come to Portsmouth here last month. They're contesting heavily here. Rockingham County sort of shows you how New Hampshire has changed over the last 10 years. Ten years ago the representation of the legislature in Rockingham County was nine to one Republican. It's now more like 65-35 percent Republican. It is the most Republican county, but it's nonetheless heavily contested by the Democrats.  And the Obama campaign certainly for the last five or six months has had a better ground game than the Romney campaign has.

BAIER: The unemployment rate is 5.7 percent. Here in Rockingham County, a little bit bigger, 6.1 percent, still well below the national average. The economy still drives the day. How does Mitt Romney play in the state?  Obviously he has a place here at Lake Winnipesaukee. He's from neighboring Massachusetts. How does he play in the state, Andy?

SMITH: I think he does well here, probably better in New Hampshire than in other states largely because he's seen as a moderate Republican candidate from his time in Massachusetts.

BAIER: People know him here.

SMITH: They know him, but also Republican voters are largely moderate Republicans. He fits in with the political character of the state of New Hampshire. The bigger problem he faces is not so much whether people know him or not. It's that the state has become increasingly Democratic as Kevin referenced over the last 10 years or so. Democrats have about a five percent edge in the state. He has to do a lot to motivate the Republicans who kind of like him to make up for the Democrats' difference in numbers.

PINDELL: This is becoming a classic New Hampshire election. This has really been a swing state for the last 20 years. We live and breathe our "Live Free or Die" motto. We're probably the most libertarian state this side of the Mississippi. If the question for New Hampshire elections is about fiscal issues, taxes and spending, Republicans win. If it's about anything else, social issues, war, something else, Democrats tend to do better.

BAIER: That said, how does the president's health care law play here?  How does the tax question play here on the president's side?

LANDRIGAN: The health care law is not wildly popular here, and one of the reasons why is we have some of the highest health care costs in the country. So that's not a wholly positive thing for the president. And as you know, we're here in New Hampshire, taxes matter. We don't have an income or a sales tax, so the attacks against president Obama as a taxer do hurt him.

But on taxes in New Hampshire, you've got to tell the truth and be 100 percent accurate. That's the concern for Romney right now with a few weeks left with that study last week that suggested that his tax plan may not all add up. He has to make sure his math adds up in order to be credible on taxes.

BAIER: Clearly that debate moved the needle, at least if you look at those polls post-debate. But Andy, you were starting to see some stuff even before that debate that things were moving. What do you think of the last 20 plus days and what you might see depending on the next couple of debates?

SMITH: First off, I think we're getting to the point where the final third of the electorate that's going to show up is starting to pay attention. We have to really remind ourselves that most people don't care that much about politics like we have to, so those people who are starting to pay attention now are the ones that are going to be key. And I think over the -- you'll see the polls in New Hampshire as well as nationwide start to stabilize as they decide, first off, whether they're going to vote or not, and then the independents, the people who aren't really that political will decide who they vote for. I think it's going to be stable and I think we'll see marginal increases, but nothing like the dramatic increase or decrease for either candidate that we saw after the last debate. We were actually seeing movement before the debate started, before the debate actually occurred towards Romney. Republicans are getting their enthusiasm back after losing it in September.

PINDELL: Generally New Hampshire is not about base elections, bringing out Republican or Democratic base, although both presidential campaigns are playing that way. Remember the breakdown politically this state. Thirty nine percent of the state are independent or undeclared voters, 33 percent are Republican, 28 percent are Democrat. By the math, these undeclared or independent voters will decide this election. Whether or not they figure out this is about fiscal issues and the economy or if it's about health care or pro-choice values. Remember, this is a state with no income tax, no sales tax, but we're one in six with gay marriage.  That's how libertarian we are.

BAIER: It's amazing.

Kevin, James, Andy, thank you very much. Now we can dig into these Popovers.

Beautiful downtown Portsmouth. Thank you as always.

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