Everything is lining up for a perfect primary here in New Hampshire. A pretty but not inconvenient patina of snow lines the ground. The Patriots weren’t in the Super Bowl, which means they didn’t even show it up here. They put on Laurel and Hardy movies instead. The weather is cold, but not the mind-numbing, inhumane cold New Englanders take so much pride in enduring. Basically, all eyes and ears are on the election.
Most of the candidates had a weekend of non-stop events, excluding Ben Carson, who is still looking for that perfect tie and sock pairing that might swing things his way.
I set out Saturday morning a little dubious about New Hampshire and its primary. I’ve spent a fair amount of time around politics and expected the usual, just with New England accents. What I found was a little different.
I decided to spend Sunday with the four men vying to challenge frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Call these four the establishment candidates if you must, but I see them more as the happy warriors. Despite the opinions of those in the know, each of these men believes he might well be president. But what do the people of New Hampshire think?
Rubio Tried To Shake It Off
Charles Bukowski once wrote: “In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.” One had to wonder if Marco Rubio felt something like that walking into Londonderry High School after the drubbing he took from Chris Christie in Saturday night’s debate. A capacity house of 800 people greeted him in the large lunchroom, a mix of thirty- somethings, young families, and a smattering of very old and very young folks.
Outside the school, two men dressed in cardboard box “Rubio robot” outfits mocked the media darling until they were removed rather pleasantly. But unlike my news and social media feeds, few people inside seemed to think Rubio’s poor debate performance was really a game changer.
In fact, more than a few voters (who supported several candidates) thought Christie came off as a bully, needlessly harping on Rubio. This, I suppose is why “The Sopranos” wasn’t set in New Hampshire. But Rubio knew the score. He mentioned the flub right off the bat. Then he doubled down on his point, with slightly different language.
“What Obama has done to America wasn’t an accident,” he said, this time to great applause, no doubt wishing he had brought his thesaurus the night before. The rest of his stump speech, as everyone seems willing to concede, went like gangbusters.
He holds a room deftly, and moved easily from criticism of the president to heartfelt stories of his parents’ struggles as immigrants. Forty-eight hours before the first primary votes, we know what we thought we knew all along: Cruz is the skilled debater, but Rubio is great speechmaker. Whether this is a blessing or a curse remains to be seen. But Rubio was right back on his game.
Jeb Bush Is On Fire
While driving up from Brooklyn, I had listened to opera from the Met and heard the final act of “Pagliacci.” As the jealous lover Canio performed his glorious aria before killing his true love Needa and her paramour Silvio, I couldn’t help but think of Jeb Bush. Here is a man who has given so much to the party, a party that is in his blood. He has offered it riches and stability, but it’s not enough. This young handsome interloper has taken it all away and, in his anger, he faces the choice of accepting that fate, or killing his party and rival in jealous rage.
Perhaps it is a little too soon for such an analogy. I asked Jeb last week on Fox News how he could bring an optimistic message to an angry electorate. In Saturday’s debate, he began to, producing the most effective smackdown of Trump of the campaign so far over eminent domain.
At a town hall in Nashua, he pushed his positive achievements to the mild enjoyment of the crowd of about 300, who were mostly on the wrong side of 50. Just as in the debate, this was positivity—with a twist.
Bush’s biggest applause lines came from a savage attack on Trump. He fired at Trump over his attacks on women and prisoners of war, and his mocking of disabled people. When he landed on “You do not want a man like that to be president,” he got his loudest, longest cheer of the day, possibly of the cycle. And he didn’t even say please.
Even Jeb’s radio ads now offer him as only candidate who is standing up to Trump. Is it too late? Probably. But maybe, just maybe, for Jeb this is not the end of the comedy.
Kasich Can’t Feel His Face
John Kasich had a crowd about the same size as Bush’s in Concord, at the most extravagant high school I’ve ever seen. It had a hair salon. Seriously. His crowd was a bit younger, but incredibly staid. It seemed like between the 300 of them they had maybe consumed a six-pack in the last month. Maybe.
Kasich came out to fairly boisterous cheers, but those died down quickly when the candidate spent the first ten minutes of his speech telling budget negotiation anecdotes about Dan Quayle. Then he moved on to how his grandfather had died of black lung. After that, it’s just hard to feel excited.
Kasich and his crowd were very much alike: Good, decent, successful people who are probably right about most things—including their fairly clear understanding that Kasich will not be the GOP nominee. This may well be a shame, and maybe there is a miracle out there for the son of the mailman. But probably not.
We Heard Christie Roar
Christie had a fantastic debate, and he decided to celebrate with a pre-Super Bowl party at Cactus Jack’s in Manchester. Cactus Jack’s is a Mexicanish restaurant and sports bar that could easily be dropped into Tom’s River, New Jersey. They serve Jameson in huge snifters and margaritas in giant bowls. It was heaven to Christie’s bro-heavy crowd high on debate victory.
What was evident and a little sad is just how good the governor is at working a room. For the better part of an hour, he kissed babies (yes, there were babies) and ducked in close to answer personal questions. He showed off the skills that make him arguably the best retail politician in the race. It was a teasing glimpse at what might have been if not for Bridgegate, or the Obama hug, or Trump, or whatever it was that made him a non-starter.
I spoke briefly with Christie, who said he had fun at the debate (I don’t think that needs to be fact-checked). When pressed by reporters on his chances, he told tall tales of late-breaking New Hampshire voters.
It’s true, many of the voters I spoke to were still undecided. It’s almost like a religion here. But he’d need pretty much all of them. What is a win for Christie here—8 percent? Okay, but then what? Still, it was nice to see him do his thing.
There Is Something to New Hampshire
I came into New Hampshire, like most people not from here, very dubious about the value of giving such a small, white state such an outsized voice in selecting the president. But The Granite State makes a good case for itself. This is a kind of celebration of democracy that to my cynical New York- and Philly-trained eyes seems almost impossible.
Many people were at multiple events. Parents were clearly taking the opportunity to educate their children about the political process. For better or worse, New Hampshire does seem to be one of very few places where this kind of patriotic and, frankly, joyous expression of American politics can happen.
Then again, that was today. I dedicated it to the happy candidates, that band of positive thinkers who refuse to give in to the anger of the times. Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow is Trump and Cruz, and all the sneers, jibes, and ugly dark clouds that have propelled them to the top. I’m steeling myself.
One of the four men I saw today will do battle with this pair of dark warriors. Tomorrow, I will see for myself just what they are up against.