MANCHESTER, N.H. — On the eve of the first 2012 Republican presidential candidates' debate in this crucial state on Monday night, two distinct battles are underway: A split among diehard conservatives, and another within the more mainstream, willing-to-bend establishment GOP wing.
As a result, there's no clear favorite to win New Hampshire's GOP presidential primary early next year, traditionally the nation's first secret-ballot contest.
"I've never seen it so wide open," said state party chairman Jack Kimball.
New Hampshire is being watched closely because it has a long history of anointing potential presidents — and ruining the hopes of others — early in the election cycle.
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Seven candidates are scheduled to debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., from 8 to 10 p.m. EDT Monday. Voters are likely to see two different types of Republicans.
The more moderate wing includes candidates who built their reputations on fiscal conservatism, while largely agreeing with the far right on cultural issues. These candidates also have a history of compromise on major issues such as health care and environmental policy — and success in wooing independent, moderate voters in general elections.
This group includes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has a big lead in the latest University of New Hampshire poll; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
The more conservative branch includes businessman Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and still-undeclared candidate Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
They often pledge allegiance to the conservative tea party movement that helped elect dozens of congressional Republicans around the nation last year. They have long, vocal histories of opposition to health care mandates and an eagerness for dramatic budget-slashing. And they demand ironclad opposition to abortion.
Christopher Crawford, chairman of the New Hampshire Conservative Future Political Action Committee, summed up the difference between the two party wings: "Independent Republicans don't demand the same record of standing up for cultural issues. The independents tend to be more focused on the fiscal message."
The candidate who may intrigue the ultra-conservatives most is Cain, thanks to his energetic performance in last month's South Carolina debate and blunt speech on the trail, with lines like "stupid people are ruining America."
Cain's style appeals to people like Jerry DeLemus, chairman of the conservative Granite State Patriots Liberty Political Action Committee.
"The American people don't want someone boring," he said. "I want someone who will fight for the Constitution, and do it energetically."
This wing also wants someone unafraid to promote conservative values relentlessly, someone with the guts and charisma of Ronald Reagan, said Chris Buck, Dover Republican chairman.
The conservative crowd wants someone eager to fight for their beliefs, no matter what the more practical politicians say. One of the big New Hampshire struggles today concerns "right-to-work" legislation, which would bar future collective bargaining agreements from forcing employees to join a union or pay part of the bargaining's cost.
Right-to-work laws are popular in the more conservative South but rare in northeastern states, where labor unions are powerful. But conservative activists — touting the bill as giving all-important freedom to workers — were able this year to push legislation through the state House and Senate. Democratic Gov. John Lynch vetoed the bill, and an override effort is under way.
Conservatives say they're standing up for important principles. More moderate Republicans say the right is pushing an agenda that's oblivious to voters' real concerns.
State Rep. Tim Copeland, R-Stratham, noted that when he was campaigning last year, going door to door, "right-to-work never came up once, not once."
A moderate, he's not enthusiastic about any of the presidential candidates. "I'm still hoping some wonder person will come through," he said.
The problem for more moderate Republicans is that each of their candidates has political liabilities.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has visited the state twice recently exploring a possible bid, was U.S. ambassador to China through April — and appointed by President Barack Obama.
"I'm not sure we can have someone unwilling to criticize President Obama," said GOP activist Jennifer Horn, Nashua-based president of We The People, a grassroots conservative group.
Romney is under fire for signing into law as governor the Massachusetts health care plan considered a model for the federal government's 2010 law, which most Republicans abhor. That's a "challenge he has to overcome every day he's campaigning," Horn said.
Gingrich appeared in a 2008 public service with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saying "our country must take action to address climate change," an issue conservatives consider a liberal effort to impose new burdens on business.
Pawlenty in 2007 supported a tough Minnesota plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a step environmental groups lauded. At last month's South Carolina debate, Pawlenty said, "I made a mistake."
Doubts grounded in those issues create an unpredictable race, and a potentially volatile debate. While Romney is the putative front-runner, "I'm not sure how deep that strength is," said Tom Theall, a Newport activist.
"The field is wide open, and my mind is open as well," added State Rep. Tony Soltani of Epsom.
The moderate Republicans try to make it clear they're not that different from the right wing — they, too, oppose abortion, want lower taxes and more fiscal discipline. More important, they add, they can win.
They argue that if primary turnout is as high as expected, that will include more independent voters, who will pick one of the more mainstream candidates.
The higher the turnout, "the potency of any one group is diminished by the strength of the middle," said Romney New Hampshire strategist Tom Rath.
Perhaps symbolically, front-runner Romney will be seated in the middle of the seven candidates.
Some moderates fear the debate may turn into an ideological brawl.
"Beyond the issues themselves is the tone of the debate," said State Rep. Mike McCarthy, R- Nashua. "Discontent with the party can spread very quickly."
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