MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
As a slightly thinner Republican field battles onward from Iowa, we're going to hear now from Republican strategist Mike Murphy about the shape of the fight to come. Mike Murphy, welcome to the program.
MIKE MURPHY: Thank you. Good to be here.
BLOCK: And we should say up front, you have been an advisor in the past to Mitt Romney. You helped him get elected governor of Massachusetts. You're not, I gather, with the Romney campaign now, but you do still consider him a good friend.
MURPHY: No, I'm a friend, but - yeah, I'm friends and I give him a little free advice from time to time, but I'm not working for the campaign in any way.
BLOCK: Okay. Well, let me ask you this. Mitt Romney ended up with a smaller percentage of the vote in Iowa last night than he did four years ago. Why should the campaign look at that as progress? You could say that, you know, caucus-goers are even less enthusiastic about him now that they know more about him.
MURPHY: Well, I think part of the circus atmosphere we have in American politics now is a lot of over-analysis based on the expectations game. Well, he didn't win Lynn County. He won it last time. There must be something wrong in Cedar Rapids. Maybe it's Mormonism. You know, we get all these theories. The bottom line is he essentially tied with Rick Santorum. He can claim that he won and he has a lot of resources in the campaign.
I think the disaster for him would have been to lose and he didn't do that. I'm not sure they managed their expectations that well, but the bottom line is delegates and he came out of Iowa, he can claim he won and he's heading to New Hampshire, where he's quite strong.
BLOCK: OK, we just heard Newt Gingrich scoff at the notion, though, that Mitt Romney is the most electable of the Republican candidates. He said he has a very limited appeal in a conservative party. When you look at this field, the Republican electorate in 2012, do you see a party that's at war with itself, that's having an identity crisis?
MURPHY: No, I don't. I see some of the normal fissures. There's always some stress in the Republican Party between the movement conservative wing and the regular Republican wing. And Romney is kind of the classic regular Republican, center right. And then you've got a lot of energy on the movement conservative side, which isn't always going to nominate the candidate who's most attractive in the general election.
I mean, one thing about Newt Gingrich is he is not an attractive general election candidate for the Republican Party.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MURPHY: Now, I think Gingrich is right that Mitt does have vulnerabilities in Republican primaries. But the question is, is he conservative enough to be acceptable because people think he has the best shot to win the general election? So, I think it's going to come down to Romney and somebody. My guess is the somebody is Rick Santorum, and we'll see.
BLOCK: Do you think that Rick Santorum has staying power in this campaign?
MURPHY: I think the race wants to reduce itself to Romney, as the regular Republican and the front runner, and a movement conservative alternative that, out of Iowa, certainly looks to be Rick Santorum. So I think from a message point of view and a coalition point of view, Santorum has a lot of potential.
His problem - and I said this on television - is that organizing a campaign overnight in a whole bunch of states is like standing on your head drinking from a fire hose without drowning, while learning Chinese - very hard to do in very little time. What Santorum really needs is a one-on-one race with Romney, and he needs money and organization that he has put together quickly. Not impossible but a daunting challenge.
BLOCK: Mike Murphy, what do you make of the gathering that's coming up of social and religious conservative leaders? They're going to meet in Texas next week and to try to unite on a candidate to support, or not support. They say they don't want to split the vote and leave a clear path for Mitt Romney to become the nominee.
Does this become just a really big division in the party that leaves it too fractured to win in November?
MURPHY: Well, I think you're going to hear a lot from the professional conservative world about uniting. Now, whether or not they can achieve that or not, big open question. Generally, all these leaders have no army - most of them can't deliver a pizza, let alone a vote. Primary voters do what they want to do. But there will be a lot of noise and attempt to give Santorum a unified right to go after Romney. But, you know, that doesn't necessarily mean it'll happen because candidates make their own decisions, as do voters.
As far as a party being too fractured in the general election, you know, you hear that a lot but I think it's a myth. I remember when Barack Obama won the convention. There was all this talk about, well, the Hillary Clinton supporters will never vote for him. They're all going to vote for McCain. The women all hate him. And it's always wrong. Democrats vote for Democrats. Republicans vote for Republicans in the general election.
And the fight comes down to the ticket splitters in the middle. Romney has an opportunity here because, I think, the wrong way for him to handle the Santorum challenge would be to move more to the right, then try out social conservative Rick Santorum, which you cannot do.
Instead, I think, Romney has an opportunity to triangulate a little bit, and keep an eye on those general election swing voters that are going to be the secret to whether or not he actually - if he's nominated, becomes president or not.
BLOCK: OK. Republican strategist Mike Murphy, thanks so much.
MURPHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.