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GOP Front-Runners Gear Up For New Hampshire Primary


U.S. presidential election has moved from the pollsters to the people. Iowans held their caucuses last week. New Hampshire holds the nation's first primary on Tuesday. Bernie Sanders and Harry Clinton made their case to New Hampshire voters in a Democratic debate this week in Durham. Tonight, the Republicans will joust in Manchester. That's where NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving is. Ron, thanks very much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: These debates began in August. Seventeen Republicans on stage in two groups. A main event and an undercard, tonight's going to look different.

ELVING: You bet. We're down from seventeen to just seven. No more so-called kiddie table. And the main stage will have those remaining candidates. All the others have either dropped out or their numbers are too low to qualify.

SIMON: Which brings up the controversy because among those being dropped is Carly Fiorina. For the first time, there's not going to be a woman visible on the Republican debate stage.

ELVING: That's right. She's protesting and enlisting the support of past Republican nominees and other leaders on her behalf. But the threshold was finishing top three in Iowa or pulling in the top six in New Hampshire or top six nationally. And she fell short in all those metrics.

SIMON: What do you foresee tonight?

ELVING: In a sense, there are still two tiers. You've got Donald Trump and Ted Cruz at the top. And then the three remaining governors, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich, all chasing the fastest-rising star of the field, Marco Rubio. Now, Ben Carson will be there - maybe something of an afterthought, although it will be interesting to see if he calls out Ted Cruz for Cruz's campaign telling people that Carson was dropping out on Monday just before the caucuses began. There's been a bit of a controversy over that. And Trump has said that it taints Cruz's victory there.

SIMON: The downside to getting more attention, like Marco Rubio, is more criticism. And he seems to get more direct criticism from his opponents as he rises in the polls.

ELVING: No question. The young senator from Florida, though, is really the hot ticket in New Hampshire right now. He is expected to do no worse than third. He's certainly in the running for second John Kasich is also in the running here. Everyone coming up, of course, a little behind Donald Trump still at this point. But it's Rubio who has the national momentum then going on into South Carolina if he does well in New Hampshire. South Carolina is on the 20th. And he'll have real appeal in Nevada on the 23rd.

SIMON: What about Bernie Sanders? His lead in the polls just seems to be growing. According to reports, he might be on "Saturday Night Live" on Saturday night, just before the vote. Hillary Clinton tried to suggest that just because he's a guy from next door in Vermont.

ELVING: You know, he was well-known here from the start of course. But there's so much more to it than that. His numbers are still going up at this point. And even for Democrats who expect Clinton to be the nominee eventually, Bernie is still their feel-good vote. He is a get-it-off-your-chest vote. And, you know, Democrats have never really liked a coronation. They want a contest. And Clinton is not connecting to voter concerns on an emotional level. And she's not communicating a clear message either here or elsewhere in the country. That's why the national polls have narrowed. And you know it's going to be hard to tell Larry David and Bernie Sanders apart tonight.

SIMON: And why is she taking a day out of New Hampshire so close to the vote to go to Flint, Mich.?

ELVING: There is a national tragedy going on in Flint Mich. And this is something she has brought up repeatedly so far in the campaign. And it's a chance to show, as we were saying, an emotional connection. It's a chance to show she cares. And if some people think it looks artificial, the truth is when she's actually with people one-on-one, she has a personal touch. In person, in fact, she's generally warmer and more visibly empathetic than Bernie Sanders.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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