New Hampshire could be GOP establishment’s last stand in 2016 presidential race

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in Exeter, N.H.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in Exeter, N.H. AP

Little stayed off-limits for three of the Republican presidential candidates who, clad in sensible sweaters and surrounded by tinsel, spent the last days before Christmas wooing New Hampshire primary voters. Jeb Bush opened up about his daughter’s past prescription-drug addiction. Chris Christie invoked his late mother’s memory. Marco Rubio cracked a joke about roasting lechón.

But none dared mention the hard political truth before them: that their competing campaigns are cannibalizing each other’s support — and that if they split the electorate, the nation’s first primary on Feb. 9 could mark the GOP establishment’s last stand in 2016.

No candidate admits to vying for second or third place in New Hampshire behind Donald Trump. They’re in it to win it, they insist. They ignore hypothetical questions about what happens if they don’t.

“I’m going to be the nominee,” Bush interrupted a man in Littleton on Wednesday whose question about Trump began, “If you don’t end up the nominee, and he keeps rolling . . .”

Even some Republican voters argue that there’s no way — simply no way — Trump will walk away with a win, not in the state that prides itself in picking presidents, the state where an open primary lets independents moderate partisan choices, the state that elected eventual nominees John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

“It’s nuts,” said 33-year-old Jeff Savary of Franklin, who likes Rubio and Ted Cruz. “First of all that Trump’s even leading. It was kind of entertaining in the beginning. After a while, some of the things he said. . . .” He sighed with exasperation. “It’s just a joke.”

“The squeaky wheel will always get the grease. Right now the wheel is Donald Trump,” said 65-year-old Janet Hotchkiss of Middleton, a Bush supporter. “I don’t think the polls accurately reflect what’s going on.”

The fifth Republican debate of 2015 revealed friction between the candidates and highlighted their priorities around issues of protecting America against threats both at home and abroad, including ISIS, the Internet, and immigration.

The squeaky wheel will always get the grease. Right now the wheel is Donald Trump.

Janet Hotchkiss, of Middleton, N.H.

“We need moderate Republican leadership,” said state Rep. Charlene Takesian of Pelham. “I did endorse John Kasich, but I do have more candidates I’d like to see elected. It used to be Jeb Bush, but now Marco Rubio or Chris Christie. In order to lead this country, we’ve got to end the divisiveness.”

But Trump keeps leading, Cruz keeps surging, and the middle-of-the-road Republicans — Bush, Christie, Kasich and Rubio — keep trekking to New Hampshire, trying their mightiest not to be left behind.

That’s good news for Cruz and Trump, who benefit from their divided competition. Cruz, who finds it hard to resist playing pundit, recently told National Review that Rubio may be his most “formidable” moderate rival — but only if New Hampshire goes Rubio’s way.

“Look, the winner of the moderate lane has to win New Hampshire,” the Texas senator said. “And right now there are a number of moderates who are competing vigorously for New Hampshire, and at this point it is not clear to me who will win.”

Every presidential nominee in modern history has won either Iowa or New Hampshire. Iowa’s Feb. 1 caucuses seem a lock for Cruz or Trump; the winner will carry momentum into New Hampshire when the Granite State votes a mere eight days later. A second win by Trump, who’s leading there, or Cruz, who’s further behind, could propel one of them to more victories in South Carolina, Nevada and much of the South.

If an eventual nominee gets crowned without having won New Hampshire, future candidates could downgrade the state’s traditional importance. Some contenders already lavish less attention on Iowa, which in the last two election cycles failed to pick a GOP winner (Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012).

“It’s about whether a candidate can show some life,” said 28-year-old Shaun Doherty of Pelham, a former two-term state representative who remains undecided. “You’ve got to win one of them. When you go a couple of weeks without a win, people question your viability. Your donors dry up, your supporters dry up.”

It’s about whether a candidate can show some life.

Shaun Doherty, of Pelham, N.H.

That’s the prospect for most of the candidates if they lose or are perceived to lose New Hampshire — that is, if they do worse than expected.

At the the Fox Business/WSJ Republican debate in Milwaukee on November 10, the remaining GOP candidates took a shots at each other: Rand Paul jabbed at Marco Rubio's tax plans, Carly Fiorina jabbed at Donald Trump's relationship with Putin, and Be

Bush, trailing by much more than his supporters ever feared, claims to relish his “underdog” status. His campaign boasts the largest New Hampshire operation — 20 full-time staffers and five offices — and has stressed to financial donors that Bush, while campaigning to ultimately win, is already contending for runner-up.

“There’s a pretty healthy competition for second place — four to six people within the margin of error,” Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz said, citing a recent Boston Herald poll. “We feel very, very confident in our team there.”

Though polls show Bush is disliked even more than Trump, the former Florida governor made a point of placing his confidence in experienced Granite Staters — and reminded them they’d be partly to blame if Trump wins.

“I, for one, will entrust the voters of New Hampshire to make this decision, disproportionately, more than any other place,” Bush said Monday in Alton. “I’m totally confident that you all will maintain your position as first in the nation, that you will be discerning about this.”

Rubio, who crossed paths with Bush twice on Tuesday, tried a different approach, poking good-natured fun at voters’ candidate lists.

“I hear people say, ‘Well, I’ve narrowed it down to eight!’ ” he said Wednesday in Franklin.

Still, he tried to channel the sentiment that has fueled Trump’s rise.

“I know that times are tough. I know that people are angry. This is a time to be angry,” Rubio said, without mentioning the front-runner. “But not just be angry . . . This is a time to act.”

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Rubio, who has at least eight paid staffers in New Hampshire, has avoided calling the state a must-win. His campaign has approached the presidential race as a national contest where the telegenic candidate can grow his support beyond Iowa and New Hampshire with memorable political ads, debate performances and cable-news interviews.

But Rubio can’t afford to under-perform in the early states, and he acknowledged New Hampshire’s importance Wednesday: “Whoever wins in this state will have an incredible leg up.”

No one is playing spoiler for Rubio and Bush, Miami’s two presidential candidates, more than Christie, who nabbed a coveted endorsement from the Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper. The same publication chastised Rubio with an editorial titled, “Marco? Marco? Where’s Rubio?” Another, much smaller paper, the Conway Daily Sun, published a blistering column Wednesday — two days after Rubio met with editors — as “a man so stuck on script it doesn’t even matter when the cameras are off.”

Christie and Kasich, both sitting governors (of New Jersey and Ohio, respectively) have adopted New Hampshire as their second home. Both are ahead of Bush, and in some polls Christie is essentially tied with Rubio behind Trump — though neither Kasich nor Christie have much of a campaign operation in other states.

Christie clawed back from poll numbers so low he shared one debate stage with unpopular “undercard” candidates. A recent CBS poll showed him doubling his support to 11 percent from 5 percent over a month.

“He’s the most personable presidential candidate I’ve ever met,” gushed 74-year-old Jim McConaha of Concord. “If Trump weren’t in the race, I think he’d be Number One, really.”

Over a four-day bus tour of the state, a typically in-your-face Christie demanded voters stop flirting with candidates and at last settle on one of them to love.

“Six weeks from tomorrow, you’re voting,” Christie said Monday at a wood-paneled military veterans’ hall in Pelham. “Being in your top three isn’t working anymore, OK? You can’t vote for three. You can only vote for one.

“I want to be your one.”