Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush try to make inroads in tough New Hampshire ‘North Country’

Republican candidate Jeb Bush meets New Hampshire voters at a town hall style meeting in Nashua on Saturday.
Republican candidate Jeb Bush meets New Hampshire voters at a town hall style meeting in Nashua on Saturday. The Washington Post

New Hampshire’s rugged North Country has a way of stripping any delusions of grandeur from running for the most powerful job in the world — especially if you’re a candidate campaigning with something to prove.

On Tuesday, three days before Christmas, Florida’s two Republican presidential contenders found themselves almost as far from home as they could be without changing time zones. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush weathered a cold, persistent rain in the Democratic-leaning mountain hamlets of northern New Hampshire, each pursuing a different political goal.

Rubio, polling among the top three Republicans in the race, had to counter the perception that he’s been a lazy campaigner who hasn’t sufficiently courted voters used to a personal touch.

Bush, further behind, had to show he’s still a serious contender who could challenge front-runner Donald Trump, at least in the first state to hold a presidential primary.

This being New Hampshire, most hard-to-get voters didn’t appear entirely convinced.

“I like five candidates,” declared Republican Don Bisson, a 78-year-old retired businessman. Topping the list: “The Don, of course,” he said, referring to Trump.

He attended a Tuesday morning town hall-style meeting with Rubio in Berlin (pronounced BER-lin). He was pleased to finally meet the Florida senator.

“I’ve seen this guy a thousand times on Fox,” Bisson said. “I wanted to see him in person.”

But no commitment from Bisson yet for the Feb. 9 primary, now seven weeks away.

“He’s 10 years too soon,” Bisson said, noting the 44-year-old Rubio’s relative youth. He’s now the youngest Republican in the race; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz turned 45 on Tuesday. (After the event, Bisson was more generous toward Rubio: “He might pick up a few votes here,” he conceded.)

For Rubio, what mattered was showing up. He focused the first part of his campaign on fundraising — largely in states like New York and California — and he hasn’t targeted only one early caucus or primary state, so Rubio has faced criticism from Republican activists and some of his rivals for keeping a lighter travel schedule and holding shorter campaign events.

“We’ve been looking for Marco, but we can’t find him,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s betting his entire presidential candidacy on New Hampshire, dug playfully at Rubio Tuesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “We’ve had the bus all over New Hampshire. We haven’t been able to find him. We understand he did a very quick town hall here then left to go to Madison Avenue in New York.”

To display his affection for the Granite State, Rubio held two events Monday and two Tuesday, with another one planned for Wednesday. He also dropped in on a diner, a pizza joint and a candy store — at times with his wife, Jeanette, and kids — to shake hands and mingle.

“I’m really asking for your vote,” Rubio told about 125 people Tuesday morning at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Berlin. “I need your help to get this done.”

He kept a promise to be brief, keeping his opening remarks to about 13 minutes — quite short for the eloquent Rubio — and spent more than an hour tackling about a dozen questions.

The crowd was eager.

“We’ll get to it in a second,” he told one voter who interrupted when Rubio called on someone else. “We have plenty of time!”

For his part, Bush campaigned with a more palpable sense of urgency. He’s been to New Hampshire plenty — he held four town halls just on Saturday — and is known for taking a slew of questions at every stop. Yet neither his physical presence nor his constant appearance in political ads on television has given him a boost.

Since last week’s GOP primary debate — Bush’s best so far — the former Florida governor has tweaked his approach to cast himself as Trump’s nemesis.

“This is not a serious man that has serious plans,” Bush said Monday night at an American Legion hall in Alton, bringing up Trump’s name three times.

“I don’t know if Donald Trump knows, but the Kurds are Muslim,” Bush said the next day at a Berlin community college.

Bush, who had said on CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday that his favorite town halls are the ones where Trump is unmentioned, seemed to catch himself. “I promise I won’t talk about Trump again,” he said. (He did, less than three minutes later: “I broke my rule already!”)

“I don’t believe Trump will ever be president, but a lot of people believe what he has to say,” said 49-year-old Erik Klerk, a military veteran once stationed in Pensacola. “I believe in what Jeb is saying. He just needs to be a little bit more forceful. He needs to show more of what his brother had.”

Bush may not have realized it, but some of his best-received moments over two days came precisely when he channeled Trump.

“We’re getting a little too politically correct in this country,” he said Monday night after a woman thanked him for wishing her “Merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays.”

No other Bush line drew more applause.