BERLIN, N.H. — Chris Christie is mocking Marco Rubio for not showing up. An hour’s drive up the road, Jeb Bush is hammering away at Donald Trump — oh, and there he goes attacking Christie, too. Just a few blocks up the road, Rubio is quietly lashing Ted Cruz, reminding the people at his town hall that “some Republicans” voted to cut defense spending.
Welcome to New Hampshire, where the fight for the establishment lane of the GOP presidential primary is turning into a circular firing squad.
As the year winds down, four Republicans have crisscrossed the state, pointing their attacks in all directions. And with less than 50 days until the first-in-the-nation primary, it’s only going to get worse.
Forget Iowa, which Cruz appears to be locking up. It’s New Hampshire that will cull this field. And with Christie, Bush and John Kasich making the Granite State the singular focus of their campaigns, and Rubio, should he lose Iowa, needing a top-tier finish, the fight to be the mainstream alternative to Cruz or Trump could end here.
“At the beginning of the year, we seemed to have an embarrassment of riches, and I thought it was a sign of strength of the party. And then Trump gets in and all of the sudden that strength has worked itself into something of a weakness,” said Drew Cline, the former editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s biggest newspaper. “He has left all of the candidates in his shadow for months. And it’s trickier for a Trump alternative to emerge when the field is just so crowded.”
If Trump wins the Feb. 9 primary a week after Cruz wins Iowa, only one or two candidates finishing behind him will likely have the momentum to carry on. If four or even five candidates split the vote of an establishment electorate that never coalesces behind one standard-bearer, there may be only hollow victories to declare on primary night because none will have the firepower to challenge Cruz or Trump in South Carolina.
Just ask Cruz; he’s counting on it.
“Marco is perceived by many to be the most formidable candidate in the moderate lane. But he has serious competition in the moderate lane. Look, the winner of the moderate lane has to win New Hampshire,” the Texas senator said in a wide-ranging interview with National Review about his political strategy last week. “And at this point it is not clear to me who will win.”
A new poll of 500 likely New Hampshire Republican-primary voters, conducted by Tel Opinion Research and first reported Tuesday by POLITICO, underscores how competitive the state is: Trump leads with 24 percent, followed by Cruz at 16 percent, Rubio at 14 percent, Christie at 13 percent and Bush at 9 percent. Kasich didn’t even merit a stand-alone mention in that survey, getting grouped instead into “other.”
According to the Real Clear Politics polling average of New Hampshire polling, Trump stands first (26.5 percent) followed by Rubio (12.8 percent) and Christie (11.5 percent). Kasich and Bush both sit south of 10 percent.
“The race is absolutely wide open,” said Steve Duprey, New Hampshire’s Republican National Committee committeeman, who is neutral in the primary. “In some ways, Donald Trump leading is very legitimate. He’s done the best job of capturing people’s anger with a government that doesn’t work. But I’m now seeing voters saying we want details on these issues.”
Another important takeaway from the Tel Opinion poll’s cross-tabs is that Rubio has the best shot of winning New Hampshire in a narrower field. In a three-way GOP race, Trump’s support ticks up to 30 percent, Rubio’s jumps to 28 percent — doubling his numbers — and Cruz’s support grows by 10 percentage points, to 26 percent.
“If the establishment coalesces, that can put someone else in the top tier,” said Tom Rath, a longtime GOP operative in New Hampshire who is backing Kasich. “But, that’s a big if.”
Indeed, New Hampshire is in fact quite far from uniting behind one more mainstream candidate to take on Cruz and Trump, if the polling is to be believed.
Cline, who has endorsed Rubio, says he thinks the Florida senator and Christie, buoyed by late-year momentum, have the best shot to consolidate establishment support in the state. “I think there’s a real opportunity for one of them to emerge as the strong alternative to Trump,” he said. “Especially, if Cruz just blows off New Hampshire and focuses on Iowa, it helps one of those two become that strong alternative to Trump.”
But Rubio has been reluctant to prioritize any one early-voting state, concerning his big-dollar donors. He went on a three-day swing across New Hampshire before Christmas but, to date, he has been made just 44 stops here this presidential cycle — a point his rivals are eagerly highlighting for New Hampshire voters as the year races to a close.
“We’ve been looking for Marco, but we can’t find him,” Christie said Monday. “We’ve had the bus all over New Hampshire. We haven’t been able to find him.” Bush, too, has bragged of late that he plans to outwork his rivals in a state that has long rewarded candidates who exhaust themselves in the rigors of retail politics: answering all the questions, shaking all the hands, taking all the selfies.
But all that bluster from Bush and Christie about how they’re working four times harder merits a question about why they’re not polling four times better than Rubio. He is still running slightly ahead of or even with Christie (131 stops in New Hampshire), Bush (71 stops) and Kasich (108 stops).
While he plans to increase the number of town halls and retail stops here, Rubio has positioned himself as a top-tier candidate largely through his success in nationally televised debates and interviews. His supporters, recognizing that as many conversations take place these days in the virtual communities of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as elsewhere, work hard to spread positive items across their social networks.
But that might mean nothing in New Hampshire, where voters, infamously, don’t commit until days, perhaps moments, before primary election day. Four years ago, 46 percent of voters decided on a candidate in the final days before the primary — a figure that could be even higher this year.
“A lot of people in New Hampshire were tuned to the last debate,” said Jody Nelson, the Derry GOP vice chairwoman and a Rubio backer. “Rubio and Cruz dominated that debate, and we’ve seen their support go up here. People are smart enough to see Christie’s all in in New Hampshire, but we also wonder what he has in other states. Cruz and Rubio aren’t here all the time, but they are investing time. … We know we need to pick a candidate who can win the nomination and beat Hillary Clinton, not just camp out in New Hampshire.”
After Rubio’s town hall Tuesday, a number of the people who waited in line to shake his hand indicated that they were leaning toward supporting him but that they planned to take a bit longer to make up their minds.
“There’s so many choices, that’s part of the problem,” said Paul Graney, who came to see Rubio with his wife and planned to attend Bush’s town hall a mile up the street later that afternoon.
Diane Taupier, who also took advantage of the two candidates being in her small town on the same day, is torn among Rubio, Cruz and Bush and planning to take her time. “I prefer waiting to get as much information as possible.”
Bush, after underperforming for months, maintains a financial advantage and is fighting on multiple fronts to regain a foothold in the race. The former Florida governor has asserted himself as the one Republican candidate willing to stand up to Trump. And last week, he began, however tentatively, to sharpen the contrast between himself and Christie, who has leveraged the Union Leader’s endorsement into broader support.
First in an interview and later with a group of reporters, Bush emphasized his record of having had Florida’s bond rating upgraded to AAA on his watch, in contrast with New Jersey’s, which has fallen under Christie. After asserting that he is “the most conservative, reform-minded candidate” among the governors or former governors still in the race, Bush was asked point-blank whether Christie’s record stacked up to his. “No,” he said, as his voice lowered significantly. “He has not had the level of success of being a conservative governor implementing conservative policies.”
Bush has steered clear of attacking Rubio since late October, when his botched criticism of his former protégé in the third GOP debate sent his campaign into a downward spiral. But the Florida senator continues to take heat from Christie, Cruz and Rand Paul. While his campaign engages in an intense back-and-forth on policy, Rubio often makes it through his hourlong town halls without mentioning a single Republican rival by name.
That’s partly because Rubio doesn’t want to be grouped with the lower-polling mainstreamers. In fact, he’s spent considerable time in December sparring not with Bush or Kasich but with Cruz, seeing the contest not as one of conservative vs. moderate but old vs. new.
“We are being asked to do what every generation before us did,” Rubio said here last week. “The people who came before us did what they had to do —they confronted their challenges and embraced their opportunities.
“Now it’s time for us.”
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