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What's At Stake For The Presidential Candidates In New Hampshire

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Well, the polls in New Hampshire close in just a couple of hours, and it's shaping up to be an eventful night for both Democrats and Republicans. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to tell us what to watch for. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Her, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the Republican side. Donald Trump has been drawing enthusiastic crowds in New Hampshire for months. What is at stake for him tonight?

LIASSON: I think what's at stake for Donald Trump is the margin. Everybody thinks he's going to win, but by how much? He's been polling with double-digit leads for a very long time, nut he underperformed his poll numbers in Iowa. He came in second when it looked like he could have won that state. And so that's the thing to watch for tonight.

And then the question will be, is his support hitting a ceiling? Is it tailing off, or is it just that he has refused to invest in what's called the ground game - get out the vote infrastructure. He doesn't really believe in it. He's described himself as a product. He says he's selling the product. I guess this whole political business and running for president is a very different business model for him.

SHAPIRO: Well, as you say, he came in second in Iowa to Ted Cruz. And everyone was talking about Marco Rubio, who came in third. Rubio did not do so well in Saturday night's Republican debate. How badly do you think that hurt him?

LIASSON: Well, we're going to find that out tonight. The big question is, was that debate when Rubio was widely considered to have choked - was that a Dan Quayle moment or just a bad night, and did it affect voters? Or was it just all pundits and analysts saying that he was - he had really hurt himself? We had thought out of Iowa that this was going to be a three-man race - Trump, Cruz, Rubio. Now that seems maybe less likely. Rubio seemed poised to consolidate establishment support, big donor support, but if he doesn't finish in the top three, this race is going to continue.

There is a ferocious battle in New Hampshire now for second place, third place, even fourth place among John Kasich, who's been really surging in the polls, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. If any of them get to third or fourth place or beat Marco Rubio, they have a reason to stay in at least through New Hampshire.

SHAPIRO: OK.

LIASSON: Through South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: Through South Carolina, which is after New Hampshire. OK, so a lot up in the air on the Republican side. What about the Democrats?

LIASSON: Well, if anything seems preordained tonight, it's that Bernie Sanders is going to win big. He has been polling by huge curvature-of-the-Earth leads over Hillary Clinton for a very long time. So expectations for him are sky high. He wants to give himself as much momentum as he can into the next set of states - Nevada and South Carolina, which are much more diverse, proportionately fewer white liberals, more Hispanics, more union members, more African-Americans. So he needs to win as close as he can to how he's polling. The thing to watch for tonight is that his strength is in the three counties that border Vermont. Her strength - Hillary Clinton's strength should be in the southeastern corner of the state.

SHAPIRO: Well, if, as you say, Hillary Clinton is expected to lose to Bernie Sanders tonight, where does that leave her campaign?

LIASSON: Well, I think it really depends how much does she lose by. If she can narrow the gap with him, she gets a tiny, little bragging right to say she came back. If she can get into single digits, I think that her campaign will be elated. She is looking - already looking toward South Carolina and Nevada. She left New Hampshire to go to Flint, Mich., where the lead poisoning story is a huge issue for African-Americans. That's her base in South Carolina. That's what her campaign has been counting on as a firewall.

And she has also started to make much more of a frontal assault on Sanders. You're going to see much more of that as the campaign goes on. The Clinton campaign thinks he's been subject to very different vetting standards. But it turns out, as they have - as the campaign has been telling everybody, that Bernie Sanders also went to fundraisers with investment bankers and took money from financial firms and lobbyists. You're going to hear a lot more about that.

SHAPIRO: Are you expecting to see people drop out after tonight?

LIASSON: I expect to see some Republicans drop out, no Democrats. There's only two of them.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) There's only two of them.

LIASSON: There are only two of them. But yes, I think that whoever finishes lower than fourth is probably going to have to go home.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who is going to be with us throughout the night as special coverage continues. Mara, appreciate your being with us here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LIASSON: Thanks. I'll see you soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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