Monday was the last day of the notion-bending year-long campaign leading to the New Hampshire presidential primary. Republican candidates have for months decried the condition of America, denouncing Barack Obama for what they see as destruction wreaked on the U.S. that has pushed the country to the edge of a precipice. With New Hampshire voting those dire descriptions will end, at least for the Granite State, as the campaign rolls on to South Carolina, Nevada and beyond.
Who’s rising, who’s falling and who will exceed expectations? Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie all had good days in the last moments of the New Hampshire primary, but they face a dual challenge of trying to shove past the other two governors and simultaneously trying to catch up to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Here are a few impressions from the candidates’ closing appearances.
Jeb Bush: Bush spoke Monday at a Rotary luncheon held in the Nashua Country Club, facing as many members of the press as Rotarians. It seemed a curious choice for the last campaign day, but may have in part been a product of his brother Neil’s Rotary membership. Neil Bush appeared with Jeb, adding a personal touch to what should be a receptive audience for Bush. One elderly woman in attendance described herself as almost decided, choosing between Bush and Trump. By her description she was almost certain to go for Trump, however.
The very large press contingent accompanying Bush ran into a decidedly unwelcome reception. The Rotarians appeared to have zero patience for any disruption of their regular luncheon, squashing the press corps into two small sections of the room and with several attendees voicing decidedly negative views of the press.
The muted Rotarian reception contrasted with a very strong appearance Saturday, however. That Bedford town hall had an overflow crowd of 400 packed a middle school cafeteria, giving Bush a warm reception. It was the largest Bush crowd I’ve seen and the largest crowd I saw among the scattered Bush, Kasich, Christie, Cruz and Rubio events I attended.
John Kasich: Kasich had two solid crowds, with 200-250 at his 100th New Hampshire town hall held Friday evening and 300 or so joining him for a Sunday afternoon pre-Super Bowl town hall in Concord. He’s consistently drawn smaller crowds than Bush and Christie, but that gap seemed to diminish in the last few days. He’s a quirky candidate, sometimes connecting well but sometimes missing with his audience. His less-heated rhetoric has found an audience though, offering himself as a decided contrast to the other Republicans as he discusses the need to work with Democrats and his success doing so in Congress. His greatest audience response Sunday came when a woman prefaced her question by saying that throughout his “entire … town hall you’ve been so positive and just talked about your issues”. The audience cheered and applauded.
My unscientific sampling of Kasich’s town hall attendees over the past several months has always found a predominance of undecided voters, greater than those at other candidates’ events. That seemed to continue Friday and Monday, although the few attendees I spoke with said that they were close to choosing him. Sunday a woman rose, describing herself as an independent voter “shopping” for a candidate. “I’ve been told that you’re my candidate” by other people she said. “Believe them” replied a smiling Kasich. Her serious question was on Planned Parenthood, specifically how/why Kasich would deal with the substantial loss of non-abortion health services that would be lost if Kasich follows through on his regular promise to fully defund Planned Parenthood.
Somewhat at odds with his incarnation as a happy warrior, Kasich isn’t a natural smiler. He doesn’t radiate happiness as much as concern and evenness. His rhetoric is consistent and clear in rejecting the harshness predominant in this campaign, but it’s not always quite a smooth fit with the narrative of happy warrior.
Marco Rubio: Rubio finished his New Hampshire campaign in Nashua, drawing about 250-300 people to a closing rally Monday night. Speaking for 15 minutes Rubio hit his familiar themes but also made a widely-noted gaffe, awkwardly repeating a line as he appeared to briefly lose his train of thought. Unlike Bush and Cruz, his event was a rally, not a town hall, and he did not take questions. He did stay for a lengthy post-rally meet and greet, shaking hands and posing for pictures with all of the many people who wanted to do so.
He’s picked up some protesters dogging him lately, with several men unfurling a banner at his rally reading “No Record No Experience” and yelling that he is “insulting the middle class” as Rubio did a live interview with Fox’s Megan Kelly in the hushed gymnasium. (Kelly drew a nice round of cheers and applause when she appeared.) His rally was a good, but not overwhelming, closing moment.
Chris Christie: Christie has consistently lagged Kasich and Bush in public polls, despite an extraordinary amount of time campaigning in New Hampshire. He’s made for the town hall, prowling the floor, telling jokes and somber anecdotes as he talks, emotes and connects. His demonstrated speaking skills have damaged Marco Rubio but seem to have only modestly benefitted Christie. He hasn’t quite found a real niche despite his strong campaigning skills, as Donald Trump offers even more bluster and John Kasich and Jeb Bush offer less bombast for voters repelled by it. His troubles at home trail him, even though they’re not usually front and center at his town halls.
Speaking for 90 minutes Saturday in Hampton Christie worked his audience well, drawing laughs and applause from the 250 attendees. About 100 people stood for the duration as Christie attacked Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton, mocked Donald Trump and pitched himself as tested and ready from his time as New Jersey governor and U.S. Attorney.
Ted Cruz: Late Monday afternoon Cruz attended a town hall organized by the 603 Alliance, a TeaParty flavored conservative group. Although there were 150-200 people in the audience many were out-of-staters. It’s a widespread phenomenon in the closing of this primary; there are many visitors here to see the presidential candidates up close. It’s a great opportunity for those visitors, and a healthy element for democracy, but it’s undoubtedly frustrating for campaigns trying to reach actual New Hampshire voters.
Cruz has spent less time in New Hampshire than many of his fellow candidates, but he’s increased his activity here in the past few weeks. He seems to have faded slightly, with somewhat reduced closing poll numbers. His message of faith, guns to protect us from a tyrannical government and an urgent need to reverse the evil perpetrated by Barack Obama married with economic populism more in common with Bernie Sanders still draws a devoted following, though. Three weeks ago he drew 1,000 people to a town hall, the largest non-Trump audience I’ve seen, but his recent events have been smaller.