36 Hours In Campaign Country

This small rugged state teeming with presidential aspirants offers visitors unique proximity to question, praise, berate or hug the next American president.


The presidential campaign has been running in high gear for months, but New Yorkers see it only from afar.  Candidate visits to New York are almost entirely out of public view, primarily for fundraising and TV appearances.  New Yorkers hoping to see candidates in person can visit campaign country, however, with New Hampshire the closest corner of campaign country and just a short drive away.

Sunday 8:15 a.m. – On The Road

Meet a fellow reporter just north of New York City and drive through western Connecticut north into Massachusetts.  Watch for the plentiful state troopers on I-91.  Don’t let the genius political arguments bandied about distract you from the speedometer.

Sunday 11:00 a.m. – Your New Friend Irving

A stop awaits before the first campaign event – a visit to an Irving, the ubiquitous gas station/convenience store.  Gourmet it’s not, but Irving offers a quick, clean stop for hot coffee, cold seltzer and a cellophane wrapped sandwich.  With lots of driving between five events efficiency is a key to success.  Pro-tip: Always get two sandwiches, one for now, one to tuck in your bag for a pre-candidate town hall boost.

Sunday 1:00 p.m. – Dr. Ben Carson

Keene State College is dead quiet on a Sunday morning, notwithstanding an imminent presidential candidate appearance.  With Secret Service protection and security screenings for Carson, entering his town hall is a lengthier process.  About 30 minutes ahead of his town hall, only 30 or so people are in the auditorium.  “Don’t worry, they’ll be here after church” says an early arrival and indeed a crowd of 200+ materialized by 1:00.  Chatting with attendees it appears that his audience is significantly centered around faith, both their own and Carson’s.

Carson - Keene, NH 12-20-15

Carson’s audience greets him with a standing ovation and cheers but then is somewhat muted, sitting rapt as the candidate glides around the large raised stage for more than 45 minutes offering his views.  His soft raspy ruminating is  mesmerizing, but it’s still clear that there are many topics that he’s never really thought about in-depth.  Among the questions in the eventual Q&A is one posed by a young girl: “How are you going to get out all the Muslim terrorists who are in the United States”?  Carson began his response by observing that “this young lady’s on the ball.”

Carson - Keene, NH 12-20-15His audience was devoted, with Carson ending to a standing ovation.  Carson drew the largest post-speech crowd on the trip, with 75-100 people lining up for handshakes, autographs and selfies as Carson worked the rope line enveloped by Secret Service.  (Our full Dr. Ben Carson photo gallery is here.)


Sunday 5:00 p.m. – Curved Roads & Straight Talk

A 30 minute drive east brings you to the next large town, Peterborough, and its picturesque “Town House” in its picturesque town center.  It’s cold, but not bitterly so, in Southern New Hampshire, with the slightest coating of snow tucked into scattered spots unreached by direct sunlight.  There’s an absence of braggadocio, with a welcome sign modestly proclaiming Peterborough “a good town to live in.”

Christie - Peterborough, NH 12-20-15

Christie - Peterborough, NH 12-20-15Christie’s town hall is the most elaborate production of the trip with a large crew setting up extensive lighting, risers for elevated seats surrounding Christie on three sides and shooting the town hall with some impressive video cameras.  He draws a large Sunday evening crowd, about 200-250.  Christie has fully committed to campaigning in New Hampshire, with countless visits.  Tonight he’s wearing dual lapel pins, with his usual left lapel American-flag-colors-on-a-map-of-New Jersey pin joined by a New Hampshire map pin on his right lapel.  Appearing with Christie is Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, one of three Republican governors to have endorsed Christie.  He’s also accompanied by his wife and children.  Per Christie it’s his 40th New Hampshire town hall and his 54th day campaigning in the Granite State.

Christie’s performance is intensely personal, although it’s less biographical than some past appearances.   “Tested” and “ready” are key words in Christie’s pitch as he both directly and indirectly criticizes legislators and “characters” as unprepared to be president. In his presentation he’s running against Hillary Clinton, not his Republican competitors.  He does toss in a direct swipe at one competitor, though, as he assures the audience at the start not to worry if he doesn’t immediately call on them because “this is not like a Marco Rubio thing where you get three questions and then he leaves.”

Christie has a good crowd of well-wishers afterwards, with quite a number saying that they support him.  He doesn’t take press questions, although he takes one question on how he would resolve congressional deadlock.  He lightly avoids my question of who he predicts or would prefer to be in a narrowed group of candidates. Christie has a massive luxury campaign bus parked in front of Peterborough House, but he walks past it and hops into an SUV tucked in front.  (Our full Christie photo gallery is here.)

Sunday 8:00 p.m. – See A Friend

A quick stop at Irving fuels the car and driver for a 1&1/2 hour drive to Rochester, site of two town halls the next day.  Mostly on two lane roads, it’s a pleasant drive but darkness limits the views.  Rochester is a growing area (the Tri-City) on the Maine border, about 25 miles north of Portsmouth, with Massachusetts folk moving up while commuting to jobs in or near Boston..

Monday 9:00 – A Senatorial Breakfast

The schedule gods are beneficent this morning, as Marco Rubio and John Kasich have well-timed town halls about a mile apart in Rochester.  Bumping into Senator Rubio as he eyes the hotel breakfast buffet confirms that you’re in the right place.

Rubio - Rochester, NH 12-21-15

Rubio draws 100-125 people to a start-of-the-workday town hall.  Joined mid-town hall by his wife and children he seems relaxed with an engaged and interested audience.  He gets good applause and a decent number of people tell him afterward that they support him, but overall the crowd doesn’t seem overwhelmingly supportive.

Rubio - Rochester, NH 12-21-15After greeting audience members Rubio holds a press Q&A, one of only two on this five candidate trip.  Note to self: Next time ignore the voice in your head saying don’t tweet the photo you took of Rubio’s boots.  (Our full Rubio photo gallery is here.)


Monday 12:30 p.m. – John Kasich

Kasich - Rochester, NH 12-21-15Kasich’s town hall is the smallest of the trip, with about 40 people in the audience.  They’re mostly retirement age, with a couple wearing military hats.   The proximity to Rubio’s town hall is a plus as arriving early (Irving sandwich in hand) provides a chance to quickly edit and post some video and photos.  There’s plenty of space though, and even late arriving press easily finds a spot.

Kasich is joined by his two top New Hampshire endorsers, former U.S. Senators Gordon Humphrey and John E. Sununu.

Kasich - Rochester, NH 12-21-15

Kasich has his “National Debt” clock, digitally displaying the steadily increasing estimated national debt, and it’s a significant focus for him.   He’s well-versed on a wide range of issues and easily moves between touting his previous congressional experience and his current role as Ohio governor.  His audience asks substantial questions, mostly appearing to be trying to get to know him.  Kasich wrapped up by leading a singing of “Happy Birthday” for a woman turning 85 that day and then shaking hands and posing for pictures.  He spoke with the press for a few minutes afterwards, joining Marco Rubio as one of the only two out of five candidates to do so during our visits.  When I prefaced a question by describing his campaign as facing a “tough road” he replied “I don’t kinda feel that way” and expressed optimism in his team and the notion that New Hampshire voters won’t make up their minds until the week or two before the primary.

A group of white-haired ladies  spoke highly of Kasich afterwards, but they’re not ready to commit.  Two of them are going to Jeb Bush’s town hall that evening and, even though they’re leaning toward Kasich Bush appears to also have a shot at their support.  They and three friends all express dislike of Donald Trump.  (Our full Kasich photo gallery is here.)

Monday 6:15 p.m. – A High Energy Town Hall!

Bush - Alton, NH 12/21/15The usual Irving stop is supplemented with a Subway stop, adding a gourmet touch before the modest 20-25 mile drive north from Rochester.  Jeb!’s town hall is in the most festive location of the trip, a low-ceilinged American Legion hall in Alton warmly lit and heavily decorated for Christmas.  Team Jeb! has placed a large red “Jeb!” out front, but the American Legion hall is by itself on an unlit road and the Jeb! sign doesn’t quite catch your eye.


Bush - Alton, NH 12/21/15Jeb!’s town hall has a warm vibe, though, driven at least in part by the setting.  The small L-shaped room is packed, with about 75-100 people jammed in among the decorations and press.  Among the audience is a 30ish couple considering Kasich, Christie & Bush and a mother/daughter pair likely to support Hillary Clinton.  Jeb! is in overdrive, exuding energy in rebuttal to the Donald Trump characterizations of him as “low energy.”  It’s an inaccurate complaint, but it’s clearly gotten into Jeb!’s head.  From afar he seems not low-energy, but really more low-emotion and especially low-anger and that’s left him out of tune with the current Republican mood.

Bush - Alton, NH 12-21-15His most dramatic question comes from a man advocating the restoration of Glass-Steagall and whose reference to Hillary Clinton’s “dirtbag husband” draws a smothered laugh from Bush.  Bush tries to find common ground in their mutual dissatisfaction with the banking system, but it’s a real stretch as they approach from opposite perspectives.  Bush’s natural instinct toward light regulation allows him to criticize Dodd-Frank and current conditions, but the questioner is fundamentally angered by the banking deregulation implemented from 1999-2008.

Lots of people stick around for selfies and handshakes, and many ask challenging substantive questions of Bush.  He has a happy moment with a woman who gives him a coin with Baby Jesus on it, and a laugh with a woman wearing a christmas sweater.  His staff says he’s not taking questions, that he’ll do a Q&A at his town hall tomorrow.  The press pack follows him outside, and while buckling into the front seat of his SUV  Bush briefly answers questions from a New York Times reporter standing between Bush and the open car door.  “It’s not a marginal part of the process for New Hampshire voters” says Bush, referring to the town hall and his retail campaign efforts, as he expresses optimism that Trump’s large lead will wither before election day.  The reporter pried away, Bush politely closes the door and his SUV rolls out of the parking lot and turns north.  (Our full Bush photo gallery is here.)

Monday 8:15 p.m. – It’s A Wrap. And A Sandwich.

36 hours in, it’s time to wrap up and head south into the darkness on Route 16, with the Irving stop lure of hot coffee and a sandwich just ahead.