As if on cue, after my Sunday following the establishment candidates around New Hampshire in shirtsleeves, Monday broke with dire warnings of an impending blizzard. I could hear the wind begin whipping as I prepared to set off on the trail of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. The former would be speaking at factory in an out-of-the-way town by the sea, the latter at a 12,000-seat arena in the heart of the state’s biggest city. It seemed a fitting dichotomy for these two men perched atop the GOP primary polls.
For the sake of full disclosure, as many regular readers might know, neither of these men have been on my short list of preferred candidates. Both have struck me at times as too harsh and uncompromising to forge a coalition that can win a general election. Neither has struck me as the type of person whom all, or at least most, Americans could look at and be proud of as their president.
That having been said, however, with as open a mind as possible I walked into the deep freeze to find out if I have been wrong about them.
The Middle of Nowhere
Barrington, New Hampshire, is a town of about 9,000 souls a ways up by the sea. Its wiki page lists its “site of interest” as a pond, which is supposedly a really nice pond. When I asked my father-in-law, who has lived in these parts for half a century, about it, he said he had never heard of it. But there is a Turbocam plant there, where they apparently build things, and in a big hall about 200-300 people had gathered to hear the senator from Texas.
I caught up with Bob Drewer, who walked in with his great long beard and trucker cap, carrying a decent-sized American flag on his shoulder. He told me, “I’m undecided. I like Cruz on immigration and religion, but we need who’s going to win, so for me it’s either Cruz or Rubio.” The undecided part I was used to by now, as almost everyone in New Hampshire is undecided. It’s a wonder they manage to buy groceries.
I did find one committed Cruz champion. Tim Goddard told me he has supported Cruz for several months now, because “he’s the only one against the DC machine.” When I asked if Trump might also fit that bill, he kind of shrugged and said, “I’m up in the air on Trump.” Although it seems impossible that anyone could be “up in the air on Trump,” it’s a surprisingly common position.
The Cruz Missile
Outside of the factory was parked a truck with a missile attached to it that read “Cruz Missile,” A dog was in the truck. Some local fans had made it, and as Cruz took the stage and began to speak, it turned out to be a very good analogy for him.
From the moment Cruz took the stage, he was direct, strong, and powerful in communicating his conservative ideas. Several times he invoked Ronald Reagan, specifically arguing that we are living in a time like the late 1970s, right down to trouble with Russia and Iran. He argued that not only could he rebuild the Reagan coalition (read: white working class) but also that he could bring the Rand Paul liberty wing of the party in unity with it.
He took only veiled shots at the opponents trailing him, repeating his line that the media and the establishment will not pick the nominee. He mentioned Trump only once, referring to him as a “shy developer from New York City.” This played well. After all, if there is anyplace where people dislike Gotham more than they do in Iowa, it’s New England.
Where Cruz really shined was in taking questions from the audience. On a broad range of issues, his breadth of knowledge was remarkable. In tackling income inequality, he spoke of agreeing with Bernie Sanders that “the fix is in” in terms of our economy. He used his risky stance against ethanol mandates in Iowa as evidence he was for a fair playing field and against crony capitalism.
As I watched him hold his audience, not with emotion, not with charm, but with the brute force of intelligence and facts, I was moved. For the first time, I looked at his pointed nose and steely eyes and said to myself, “This guy might wind up president, and that might be a pretty good thing.”
The Greatest Show on Earth
About 5,000 people filled the 12,000-seat Verizon Wireless Arena to hear Trump in Manchester. One caveat on that number is that there was a blizzard going on outside. On the other hand, it’s New Hampshire, so nobody cares about that. If the crowd was not at capacity, it was certainly extremely pro-Trump. This was not a group of people kicking the tires; they were here to revel in Donald Trump. Even before he took the stage, screams of “We hate Obama” and “Build the Wall” rang out from the seats.
This could not have been less like any other event I saw. In fairness, Trump had smaller gatherings here, but this is the Trump phenomenon. The crowd roared with anger and desire for Trump’s leadership, the likes of which I have never heard in my life.
I spoke on the floor to Mike Thomas, an independent who leans Democrat, who said that for him it’s between Trump and Sanders. They are “not part of the money machine,” he said: “Trump is self-funded, and Bernie has small donors.”
Rich Boulinger, who was wearing a Reagan-Bush 1984 baseball cap, is trying to decide between Trump and Chris Christie. When I pressed him on why those two are his short list, he laughed and said, “They speak their minds.” Boulinger did tell me that he might not vote for Trump if he said or did something “really crazy” that night. But when I asked what that could be given Trump’s unconventional style so far, he just shook his head. “Well, I don’t really know, find me afterwards and ask me.”
The speech. What can I say about the speech? The closest thing to policy it included was a blanket statement that politicians and corporations are corrupt. These folks are friends of his, mind you, but terrible people. He said Marco Rubio sweats like a dog. He repeated a woman in crowd who called Ted Cruz a pussy, then assured the press he was rebuking that kind of language. He said sometimes they stage protestors at his rallies so the media will show the size of the crowds. He said he won’t let people die in the streets. It was a mindless, meandering diatribe. But boy, was it great theater.
Tomorrow, New Hampshire Decides
So this freezing cold, blizzard of a New Hampshire Monday, I saw the two frontrunners. For pizzazz and style and cheese fries and hats, there is no question that Trump leaves his mark. As strange as this kind of love for a politician feels—maybe the Democrats had it with Obama in 2008—it is very real. The more they are mocked, the firmer their jaws get.
But the question Trump has not answered is: Who else? What other wing of the GOP, if these voters are Republicans at all, will fill out his coalition?
Cruz is much closer to answering that key question. You can see a path now. If his attempt to appeal to working-class whites and libertarians succeeds, the rest of the party might follow, whether the establishment likes it or not.
Tomorrow is Election Day. In all likelihood, the race will dwindle to three or four candidates. Two of them I saw today. One has begun to stand out as a real choice, while the other is still the same the reality star he has been all along.