New Hampshire primary: what to look out for

Mitt Romney needs to prove that he can win big but South Carolina may be the real ticket.

Following his narrowest of victories in the Iowa caucus last week, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney is under pressure to prove the strength of his presidential bid in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. But according to a tracking poll of Granite State voters his support is slipping here too, however probably not enough to deny him victory.

The six Republican candidates took to the stage together this weekend for the second round of debates. They started in Saint Anselm College, Manchester on Saturday followed by a second debate on Sunday sponsored by NBC News, just 12 hours later. The dialogue quickly turned from policy -- the economy and same-sex marriages -- to personal jibes.

Newt Gingrich, who came fourth in the Iowa race, attempted to embarrass Romney by telling him to "drop the pious baloney" when challenging him about his political history. The former house speaker himself came under fire after Ron Paul called him a "chicken hawk" for not serving in the military during the Vietnam war.

Gingrich -- who is currently placed in fourth in the national opinion polls once again -- has attempted to reach out to minorities during his campaigning in New Hampshire saying in Manchester yesterday:

I think it is very important for us to make a case that we are in favour of many people from many places having the opportunity to become Americans.

He added that while visas should be made easier for "legal people", deportation should also be made easier for people who "are dangerous to the whole community and who threaten the whole community".

Despite the dip, Romney remains a clear winner in the polls, making this a second and third place contest for the other candidates.

Politico's Jonathan Martin argues that New Hampshire is just a stepping stone towards the much more significant South Carolina vote later this month. In a post published this morning, Martin writes:

New Hampshire still matters. But its 2012 relevance is chiefly in how the results will shape South Carolina on Jan. 21.
With Mitt Romney enjoying a wide lead in Granite State polls, the key outcome Tuesday isn't who will finish on top. Rather, it's whether Jon Huntsman places strongly enough to keep going to South Carolina and whether Rick Santorum can outperform Newt Gingrich.

The key is to rally party supporters, and while Romney attempted to show that he had the party's support in Iowa, the eight vote difference between him and Rick Santorum proved otherwise. Santorum's candidacy provides the right with a strong alternative to Romney; if the former Pennsylvania senator can outperform the other candidates again tomorrow night, a strong case can be made in South Carolina that he's the one the right should rally around to stop Romney.

Meanwhile Jon Hunstman, who finished second to last in Iowa, seems to be gaining support following his better-than-usual performance during Sunday morning's debate. According to the New York Times Caucus Blog, Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, is counting on last minute voters tomorrow. The latest WMUR New Hampshire poll, gives Huntsman 11 per cent of the vote, tying him in third place with Santorum.

Ron Paul, who is currently second in the polls with 17 per cent, also reached out to undecided voters stating that he believed he appealed to "independent people who are sick and tired of the two-party system". When asked how he would bridge the partisan divide as president Paul answered:

With difficulty, but with a new approach, completely new... Everybody knows what I'm talking about is different, because I have such a strange, new idea. It's obeying the Constitution.

Rick Perry is almost certainly out of the race with a mere one per cent of the vote, but a last minute confidence burst during the debates may swing some votes in his favour.

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.