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'Live Free or Die' state good test for GOP

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
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GOP candidates to debate in New Hampshire
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: New Hampshire is fitting place for major GOP debate Monday
  • Avlon says the state, like the nation, has a high number of independent voters
  • Avlon says the state is more concerned about economic than social issues
  • He says "Live Free or Die" state is a good test of which candidates can win nationally

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America." Monday's CNN/WMUR-TV/New Hampshire Union Leader Republican debate will air live at 8 p.m. ET on CNN. The debate can be seen on CNN TV, CNN.com and mobile devices. And participate with your questions on the live blog at cnn.com/ticker.

New York (CNN) -- It makes sense that the first major Republican debate is going to be held Monday night in New Hampshire.

The Granite State is the best test of general election appeal of any presidential candidate before Super Tuesday. That's because New Hampshire's Republican primary is open to independent voters, who make up 42% of the local electorate -- paralleling national percentages and outnumbering in-state Republicans or Democrats.

New Hampshire is a decidedly center-right state, with libertarian impulses and an anti-tax tradition. But the national stampede to the far right embraced by most current GOP candidates will not work there. New Hampshire voters tend to reward fiscal discipline without pandering to the religious right. Social conservative litmus tests that can help a candidate win in the Iowa caucuses can be kryptonite here.

For example, New Hampshire is one of five states where same sex marriage is legal -- and it was achieved through a vote in the state Legislature rather than the courts. Playing the anti-gay culture war card could backfire badly in New Hampshire.

Likewise, a Pew Research Center poll conducted before the 2008 primary found that 55% of New Hampshire Republican primary voters believed that abortion should be always or mostly legal, while just 13% of New Hampshire GOP primary voters said abortion should be always illegal. Nonetheless, a 2011 University of New Hampshire poll also found that 57% of state residents favored a bill requiring parental notification before a minor had an abortion. This sense of reasonable restrictions is decidedly centrist.

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"New Hampshire is one of the least religious states in the country and social conservatives have difficulty winning here," attested Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "Fiscal issues are much more potent in the Granite State."

Like most of the nation, the economy is issue No. 1 in New Hampshire. A sense of cautious optimism earlier this year has been replaced by a belief that the next five years could continue to be tough economically for both the state and the nation, according to a May University of New Hampshire poll. Concerns about a lack of local jobs remain high, but worries about pressures on the state budget are also rising.

Hyper-partisan approaches are likely to fall flat. The Granite State's split ticket tradition can be seen in its current crop of elected officials, with centrist Democratic Gov. John Lynch enjoying his fourth term despite a Republican landslide at the legislative level in 2010. The state's two U.S. senators, Republican Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Jean Shaheen, are both popular, while the two congressmen representing New Hampshire are center-right Republicans -- Frank Guinta and Charlie Bass.

So given this political profile, which of the prospective 2012 Republican candidates are likely to do best in the "Live Free or Die" state?

With his recent decision to bypass the August Iowa straw poll, Mitt Romney seems to be betting his campaign on a win in New Hampshire. He can claim almost-home-state status, with a family lodge on Lake Winnipesaukee and his familiarity with locals as the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, whose media markets overlap with New Hampshire.

But Romney has the ignominious distinction of being the only statewide elected official from Massachusetts to fail to win the New Hampshire primary -- a tradition upheld by John F. Kennedy, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas and John Kerry. Romney's decisive loss to John McCain in 2008 -- an in-state favorite since the senator from Arizona beat George W. Bush by 19 percentage points there in 2000 -- reflects an enthusiasm gap that still endures. Nonetheless, Romney leads most New Hampshire polls this time by double digits, and he deserves to be considered the front-runner.

Tim Pawlenty will try to play the relatable, fresh-faced alternative to Romney, shooting hockey pucks and talking tax cuts. Whether he can convert that pitch to votes in New Hampshire will be a crucial test of his campaign -- it's almost impossible to sustain a presidential campaign without a win in one of the first three primaries.

Avowed libertarian candidates such as Ron Paul and Gary Johnson could see their best performances in New Hampshire courtesy of the state's organized libertarian elements, most notably the Free State Project, which says it has convinced more than 10,000 people to join their effort and move to New Hampshire to solidify its libertarian voting bloc.

Jon Huntsman's civility pitch could play well with New Hampshire's native skepticism toward angry partisanship if he decides to run, and his puzzling decision to skip this first debate is a lost opportunity for the former Utah governor turned President Barack Obama's ambassador to China. On the other side of the tonal spectrum, Tea Party favorite Herman Cain could out-perform his thin political resume with a stronger than expected showing courtesy of the activist class.

Among the potential candidates being courted by draft movements, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sarah Palin are not likely to find many ideological soul mates in the Granite State, but two -- Rudy Giuliani and Paul Ryan -- could be perfect fits for the state's sensibilities.

It's Giuliani's potential run that could have the biggest impact here -- his political profile overlaps considerably with his friend McCain, and his combination of strong fiscal conservative credentials but more centrist social positions could resonate with independent voters, especially if he focuses on the Granite State almost exclusively, something he did not do in 2008 (when I worked on his campaign).

One critical difference between 2008 and 2012's New Hampshire primary is that in the last race, most voter enthusiasm was absorbed by the Democratic contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton -- those independent voters who chose to cast their ballots in the GOP primary were long-standing McCain fans who wanted to reward his lonely stand to revive his campaign. This time, all the action will be on the Republican side of the aisle, giving independents an even greater influence in the outcome.

New Hampshire's role in the battle for the Republican nomination is unique, offering the center-right candidates the opportunity to compete in an open primary. Winning over independent voters is essential to winning the "Live Free or Die" state's primary -- as well as the White House.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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