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Weld Says The Mueller Findings Don't Alter His Course: Taking On Trump05:54
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Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld during a New England Council 'Politics & Eggs' breakfast in Bedford, N.H., on Feb. 15, 2019. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld during a New England Council 'Politics & Eggs' breakfast in Bedford, N.H., on Feb. 15, 2019. (Charles Krupa/AP)
This article is more than 1 year old.

This is what a long-shot presidential campaign looks like in New Hampshire, 11 months before the first-in-the-nation primary: There are no crowds and no rallies, just the lanky William Weld walking down Main Street in Concord with two aides.

"Hi, everybody," the former Massachusetts governor says to a handful of reporters. "What is on your capacious minds today?"

Weld says he is moving closer to a decision about whether to formally challenge Donald Trump for the Republican nomination — and he says he probably will, despite the fact that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation has apparently cleared the president of collusion with Russia.

Weld opened an exploratory committee last month and is back in New Hampshire this week, counting on the Granite State to launch what might seem like a quixotic White House bid.

"I always get a fair shake in New Hampshire," he says. "Live free or die, baby! That's my motto, too."

Weld is no stranger to New Hampshire, having served as governor of neighboring Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997. In 2016, his national campaign for vice president on the Libertarian ticket went nowhere. But he says running as a Republican this time, he can offer New Hampshire's famously independent-minded voters who might be disillusioned with Trump a real choice "between two men who have nothing in common, other than being large, orange men."

Weld, seen here having a coffee in New Hampshire, says he and Trump "have nothing in common, other than being large, orange men." (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)
Weld, seen here having a coffee in New Hampshire, says he and Trump "have nothing in common, other than being large, orange men." (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)

"Politically, the president and I have not very much in common at all," Weld says. "That might be an appealing way to cast a vote to make a difference."

Weld's appearance in New Hampshire this week was overshadowed by news that Mueller's investigation is over. Even though Weld is a fierce Trump critic, he called the conclusion that the president did not collude with the Russians in 2016 good news.

"It's good day for the president," Weld says. "I'm glad for the United States that the answer came back no instead of yes when the question was, 'Did the sitting president of the United States conspire with a foreign power to procure his own election?' You wouldn't want a yes answer to that question."

Weld rejects the idea that the conclusion of the Mueller investigation takes some of the wind out of his campaign sails, arguing that there are plenty of other reasons to challenge Trump.

Weld is a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, a brand of Republican that is nearly extinct, though not here in Massachusetts, which has embraced Gov. Charlie Baker, a former Weld acolyte.

Weld says he never met a tax cut he didn't like, but he condemns the Trump administration for running up the national debt to historic heights. He accuses the president of shredding foreign alliances and of scapegoating immigrants.

"Obviously, it started with his anti-Muslim screaming, setting up his immigration jihad," Weld tells WBUR. "But it's all the same idea: It's trying to incent the American people to mistrust or even hate people from another country."

When he was governor, Weld often talked about making the GOP "a big-tent party," a more welcoming home for various political constituencies. That vision is a world away from the Republican Party of the 21st century, which is now the party of Trump.

"I'm trying to break that ice," Weld says. "I think my task is to get people to think for themselves instead of taking dictation from Washington, as it were. And if people [consider] the consequences of taking dictation from Washington, I think they'll decide they don't like it."

Weld says he will need to make his case "one voter at a time."

But Neil Levesque, executive director of the Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, says "if you look at the polling, it's a tough road [for Weld]."

Levesque points out that the latest poll from the University of New Hampshire finds more than two-thirds of the state's Republicans support Trump. Levesque says Weld is right that his challenge will be to "break that ice" of support for the president.

"Donald Trump, he's as solid as a sheet of ice," Levesque says. "Republicans are pretty loyal to him. They don't move, despite all the issues that seem to come up almost on a daily difference. So, it's a tough fight for someone like Weld."

But a number of prominent New Hampshire Republicans believe that Weld is up to the challenge.

"I think he's the type of leader that is a natural fit for New Hampshire voters," says Jennifer Horn, the former chair of the state GOP, who is now working on Weld's campaign. Horn says Weld's brand of Republicanism stands in sharp contrast to Trump's — and will attract lots of conservative support in New Hampshire.

"There's no question that this president is significantly lacking in the character that New Hampshire and America deserve," Horn says. "Weld is a lifelong Republican who was rated one of the most fiscally conservative governors in the nation. I think he's the type of leader who is a natural fit for New Hampshire voters."

Weld is one of three Republicans, along with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, considering a primary challenge to Trump.

Given Trump's overall support among Republicans, Weld might not have to worry about losing the nomination, but history suggests that primary challenges weaken presidents in the general election.

"That's what happened to Gerald Ford when he was challenged by Ronald Reagan in 1976," says longtime Republican consultant Whit Ayres, "and to Jimmy Carter when he was challenged by Ted Kennedy in 1980." It also happened to George H.W. Bush when he was challenged by Pat Buchanan in 1992.

"All three of those presidents won renomination," Ayres says. "And all three lost the subsequent general election."

Back in 2016, as his vice presidential bid on the Libertarian ticket fizzled, Weld issued a quasi-endorsement of Hillary Clinton. He "vouched for her," and slammed Trump for running a "content-free" campaign that could endanger the world.

So, is Weld comfortable with the notion that he could wound Trump in 2020 — and help hand the White House to a Democrat?

"Well, I'm going to do everything I can for my own candidacy," Weld says. "I'm certainly not going to engage in tertiary guesswork about what might happen down the line. I'm just going to do the best job I can."

Weld says barring something unforeseen, he expects to announce next month that he will run for president.

This segment aired on March 27, 2019.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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