BOSTON The Republican presidential primary race in New Hampshire is turning into a contest for second place.
With businessman Donald Trump so far ahead in the polls, the other GOP candidates are ratcheting up efforts to win over crucial undecided voters in the next four weeks.
Breaking Out Of The Pack
Across the state, the candidates are getting busier — often rushing between multiple campaign events in a single day. And the crowds are getting big, as was the case on Thursday when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio addressed several hundred people inside a cavernous auto-repair training facility at Nashua Community College.
Among the themes of Rubio’s campaign is his relative youth: the 44-year-old Republican promises to represent a new generation of Americans — and to give the likely Democratic candidate a run for her money.
“That’s why this election is so critical, that’s why we can’t afford to elect Hillary Clinton,” Rubio told the crowd. “By the way, she’s increasingly attacking me. I know why — she doesn’t want to run against me. But I cannot wait to run against her.”
It might be good politics to exude the confidence of a frontrunner. But while Rubio has been attracting hefty crowds and a lot of buzz, he has yet to break out of a pack of five Republicans in New Hampshire who are all running well behind Trump — including Govs. Chris Christie and John Kasich, former Gov. Jeb Bush, and fellow Sen. Ted Cruz.
Trump Benefits From Large Field
“We are leading everywhere,” Trump proclaimed to a raucous crowd of supporters in Claremont earlier this week. “When people say, ‘Why do you always talk about the polls?’ I say, ‘Because I’m winning!’ Believe me, if I’m not winning, I don’t talk about them.”
(While Trump leads in New Hampshire, polls suggest that Sen. Cruz is leading in Iowa.)
In Claremont, throngs of supporters lined up outside in frigid temperatures for a chance to see Trump on the day President Obama announced a series of executive orders aimed at curbing gun violence.
“They’re not going to take your guns away folks,” Trump told the crowd. “They’re not going to do it, even though they’re trying.”
Trump’s support in New Hampshire has been remarkably steady over the last three months, according to Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling. Jensen just completed a survey of likely primary voters in New Hampshire which found Trump with 29 percent support — about where he’s been since the early fall. Then comes Rubio at 15 percent, with Christie, Kasich, Bush and Cruz clustered a few points behind him.
But the poll also says something interesting about the strength of Trump’s opponents.
“When you poll Trump head-to-head against Rubio, Cruz and Bush, he trails Rubio by 12 points. He trails Cruz by 7 points, and he only leads Bush by 1 point at 46-45,” Jensen said. “So what you’re seeing is that if the field gets smaller, any candidate who dropped out, [most of] their supporters would go to a candidate other than Trump.”
The poll makes clear just how much Trump is benefiting from a large field of competitors who are cannibalizing each other and pushing him to the top. That dynamic is working particularly well for him in New Hampshire, according to Gordon Humphrey, a former U.S. senator from the Granite State who is supporting Kasich.
“I think, honestly, that Trump has such a head of steam going here that it will probably carry him through New Hampshire at least, but he’ll get slowed down farther out there,” Humphrey said. “So what I’m saying is, the real winner in New Hampshire is whoever comes in second and third.”
Running For 2nd Place
But would second place — or even third place — be a satisfactory result in New Hampshire? If so, it’s not something the candidates want to acknowledge.
“We’re going to continue to work hard and convince voters every day,” Rubio told reporters in Nashua.
Asked if he’s running a race for second place, Rubio all but dismissed the question. “I’m running to do as well as possible,” he said. “We want to get as many votes as we can and we’ll see where that leads us.”
It is well known that many New Hampshire voters make up their minds in the final days, so this race is hardly settled. But it’s also a fact that the candidates who are not named Trump are having trouble escaping his shadow.
Jeb Bush experienced that Wednesday night at a town hall meeting in Meredith, where Tom Emanuel, a selectman from Laconia, told him he was leaning towards Trump.
“And I was wondering why you think he’s a jerk,” Emanuel wanted to know.
“Let’s see how much time we have,” Bush said with a wry smile as the crowd laughed.
Bush said he wanted first to say some nice things about Trump, so he gave him credit for his success in business and for his ability to challenge political correctness. But then he grew serious.
“Do you want a president that disparages women, Muslims of all kinds, people with disabilities, Hispanics?” Bush asked, with rising emotion. “I mean, we’re getting down to about 90 percent of all people here. I mean, at what point do we say, ‘Enough of this!’ ”
Bush has been somewhat reluctant to even acknowledge Trump on the campaign trail, but not this week, not with time running out to make his case in New Hampshire.
After that exchange, Bush asked Emanuel for his vote — because that’s what this process is all about.
The Laconia selectman said he’s still supporting Trump. But with almost a month to go, he said that could change. “It’s a long race,” Emanuel said.