Republican presidential candidate George Pataki’s most recent New Hampshire campaign swing was overwhelmingly focused on the San Bernardino attack and ISIS. I joined two of his three open press events Friday; a visit to a retirement community in Lebanon, New Hampshire and an appearance at a Chesire County Republican Committee holiday party.
Pataki devoted most of his remarks at both events to the San Bernardino attack and ISIS, and most of the dozen or so questions posed to him focused on the same topics.
Pataki’s first stop was Quail Hollow, a booming retirement community just north of the center of Lebanon which is itself right in the middle of New Hampshire. Pataki’s early evening visit to the dining room had the potential for catastrophe, as interrupting dinner can be a hazardous move for a politician. As he walked around greeting the 35 or so residents seated for dinner Pataki quipped “escape now if you don’t want to hear me talk.” A woman responded “we’ll listen to you, we’ll give you a chance.” They did, listening closely and engaging with Pataki, albeit after another woman bellowed “Quiet!” as residents talked over Pataki initially. He wisely warmed up the crowd by announcing that his mother’s 100th birthday is today (Monday).
Pataki launched into a familiar attack on President Obama, adding in condemnation of Attorney General Loretta Lynch for her recent comments that the Justice Department may take action against anti-muslim speech that “edges towards violence.” “Arrest me anytime you want” Pataki declared, “for calling us to kill radical islamists who want to kill us here.” As he spoke, an audience member chimed in “she’s protecting Obama.” That same man then asked the first question: “Why can’t we get rid of him in the White House?”
Pataki fielded a pair of questions on the “heroin/opiate problem”, which is a major focus in New Hampshire, and a question on “get[ting] the big money out of politics.” His other questioners returned to ISIS, although they posed more thoughtful, and in some cases skeptical, queries. A man who said he was a World War II veteran questioned the possible use of ground troops, saying “I lost a brother in World War II, and I don’t want to see anymore kids get killed.” The overall reception for Pataki was positive, with applause as he ended with a reference back to “big money in politics”, declaring “you’re not gonna see my ad, the name is Pataki.”
Pataki also appeared at a Chesire County Republican Committee holiday party in Keene. Entering he crossed paths with a candidate he’s crushing, Senator Lindsey Graham, who was headed out. Although Pataki started with an awkward defense of saying “Merry Christmas”, he launched into a similarly aggressive opening presentation focused on ISIS. He fielded five questions, among them thoughtful queries on his view of Turkey’s role (“quietly on the wrong side” was how he began his response) and a request to describe what a “cogent foreign policy would look like on the ground in places where our special ops are working.” Pataki worked in another invitation to Attorney General Loretta Lynch to “go ahead and arrest me, make my day.”
His final question was more visceral and raw as a woman rose to pose this: “In order to stop being attacked in this country, wouldn’t it be proper to not bring in the Muslims? Instead why aren’t we bringing into this country the Christians who are being beheaded and crucified?” Pataki tried to avoid a direct answer, criticizing the federal government’s ability to “vet the background of these people” and emphatically declaring “no Syrian refugees.” His questioner did not give up, however, calling out “what about the Christians?” Pataki replied that he does not believe there should be a “religious litmus test”, but then wandered a bit off-message. He confusingly added that “we should offer help to people who want to become Americans and who have the background to become Americans.” Precisely who that covers, and whether it would extend to the tens or even hundreds of thousands of Syrians who might fit that description, was unclear.
It was a pair of strong performances for Pataki, appearing energized and engaged with his audiences. It seems unlikely to produce much of a gain for him, however, as bellicosity does not separate him from his fellow Republican candidates. It was also a low coverage day for him, with two New York reporters being the only press at his first stop. Both New Yorkers were also at the Keene dinner, along with what appeared to be very limited New Hampshire press coverage.