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Roll Call

Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte Weigh Wading Into 2012 Primaries

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Kelly Ayotte called Mitt Romney the frontrunner in the New Hampshire GOP presidential primary but said voters’ minds could change in the final two weeks.

A pair of Senators from key early voting states weighed in separately today on the GOP presidential race, reinforcing their belief that the roller-coaster contest remains wide open.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte offered a pointed assessment of the New Hampshire GOP presidential primary: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the clear frontrunner, but the race will tighten.

“New Hampshire voters are really going to make up their mind in the last two weeks. I saw it in my primary,” the New Hampshire Republican told Roll Call in an interview. “I do reflect on my own primary, because I was the frontrunner throughout, and the last two weeks things really narrowed in my race. By no means, even though I think Gov. Romney is the frontrunner right now, is this race over.”

Meanwhile, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) said that his state’s primary remains “wide open” but that the outcome in New Hampshire could significantly influence the results.

“Normally, New Hampshire matters to South Carolina; I think it’s going to matter even more,” Graham said during a brief interview, adding that he believes the top two finishers in the Granite State primary would enter the final days of campaigning in the Palmetto State with a distinct advantage.

Graham said he might join fellow South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and decline to endorse a candidate in the Palmetto State primary.

“I’ve not made up my mind, but I’m sort of with Jim, let’s just see what happens,” Graham said. DeMint, an influential conservative, announced early this month that he would not endorse in the 2012 primary; he backed Romney in 2008.

Ayotte, a freshman who won the 2010 GOP primary by a hair, labeled Romney the candidate to beat but said she too has yet to decide whether she’ll offer a presidential endorsement. She did not publicly back a candidate in 2008 while serving as state attorney general.

Ayotte also said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has yet to gain traction and asserted that Georgia businessman Herman Cain has a lot of questions to answer in light of recent developments. She added that it would be interesting to see whether former Speaker Newt Gingrich can rise in the Granite State now that he is the latest to catch fire in national polls.

“We’re getting within the window with the holidays coming where people’s support is going to solidify, and we’re going to have a better sense of that,” said Ayotte, who provided a candid view into the dynamics of the race in the first-in-the-nation primary state.

Ayotte said Cain would continue to face scrutiny, not only on decade-old allegations of sexual harassment “but also continued scrutiny of his policy positions.”

Graham said Cain needs to convince voters that he’s “conversant in foreign policy,” although he did not criticize the GOP presidential candidate for appearing to be ill-informed on Libya during a Monday interview with a Milwaukee newspaper.

In the interview, which was videotaped and posted online, Cain appeared stumped when asked whether he agreed with President Barack Obama’s Libya policy. Foreign policy and national defense are issues Graham pays close attention to.

“I saw that, and every candidate has these bumps, and he’s going to have to convince people that he’s conversant in foreign policy and knows the world well enough to be commander in chief,” Graham said, adding that he thought Cain performed well at a Saturday debate in South Carolina that focused on national security and foreign policy issues.

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