EXETER, New Hampshire: Conservatives are warning of lasting political consequences as the Republican presidential field offers conflicting positions on the debt-ceiling compromise.
Some activists likened the political impact of the high-stakes fight over the nation's borrowing limit to the debate preceding the invasion of Iraq. And interest groups promised that each presidential contender's position would be remembered, particularly among conservative activists in early voting states.
"Whoever the nominees are, they are going to define themselves by how they voted or by what their response was to this deal," said Kevin Smith, executive director of New Hampshire Cornerstone, one of the first-in-the-nation primary state's leading conservative think tanks.
While most presidential candidates opposed the deal, even with a potential fiscal crisis looming, conservatives suggested that two candidates have more at stake than the others: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the early front-runner, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the only presidential contender to embrace the deal backed by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders from both parties.
"While this framework is not my preferred outcome, it is a positive step toward cutting our nation's crippling debt," Huntsman said. "Because the legislation promises cuts commensurate with the debt-ceiling increase, forces a vote on a much-needed federal balanced budget amendment and provides the only avenue to avoid default, I encourage members of Congress to vote for this legislation."
The support for a plan many conservatives activists oppose was perhaps another example of Huntsman's strategy to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans. That could end badly for Obama's former ambassador to China, said Chris Chocola, president of the fiscal-conservative group Club For Growth, which has a history of attacking Republican presidential candidates with moderate fiscal positions.
"I think it's a very consequential vote," Chocola said. "But we don't know all the consequences yet."
Indeed, while a compromise to cut roughly $900 billion is expected to become law this week, Congress must act on a subsequent $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package as recommended by a bipartisan committee - it could include tax increases - before the end of the year. The timing of the second vote would inject the issue into the presidential campaign just weeks before people begin to vote in caucuses and primaries around the country.
A deadlock in Congress on the second package, however, could trigger automatic cuts to military spending and domestic programs. Romney cited that possibility in his brief statement against the debt-ceiling compromise.
"As president, my plan would have produced a budget that was cut, capped and balanced - not one that opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table," he said. "While I appreciate the extraordinarily difficult situation President Obama's lack of leadership has placed Republican members of Congress in, I personally cannot support this deal."
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, leader of the small government, anti-tax Congressional Tea Party Caucus, also opposed the deal. So did former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, according to a spokesman, although Pawlenty did not address the issue personally.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, expected to enter the presidential contest in the coming weeks, was noncommittal.
"He supports the cut, cap and balance approach," Perry spokesman Mark Miner said. "The plan that's on the table doesn't go as far as the cut, cap and balance approach."
Before Monday, Romney sounded much like Perry, having largely avoided taking a definite position as the debate consumed Capitol Hill. The delay opened him to criticism from the right and the left.
Huntsman, who is struggling in the polls, did not call out Romney by name, but said "some of my opponents ducked the debate entirely."
"A debt crisis like this is a time for leadership, not a time for waiting to see which way the political winds blow," Huntsman said.
A Democratic-friendly outside group, American Bridge, echoed the criticism of Romney.
"It's great to see that after more than a month of negotiations, Mitt Romney finally decided to weigh in on one of the most important issues facing our nation," American Bridge spokesman Ty Matsdorf said. "As somebody who is trying to campaign as a savvy business man, you would have thought he would have tried to lead his party, but instead he has decided to kowtow to the tea party."
Romney declined to respond to the specific criticism, but a campaign spokesman said he has consistently supported the "cut, cap and balance" approach favored by the tea party and other conservatives that would, among other things, push a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. That's the approach favored by the Club For Growth.
The conservative group Americans for Prosperity also supports a balanced budget amendment, although the group's New Hampshire director, Corey Lewandowski, acknowledged dire consequences in the short term if an agreement isn't reached.
"If everybody just opposes this on principle, we're going to be in a very difficult position," he said.
The New Hampshire primary could come two weeks after Congress acts on the bipartisan committee's deficit recommendations, Lewandowski said. "If this happens around Christmas, and Speaker Boehner becomes the Grinch, that puts conservatives in the GOP primary in New Hampshire in a very difficult position."
Chocola agreed and said, "Maybe the most revealing vote has yet to come."
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