As the new year kicks off, Republican presidential candidates are scrambling to New Hampshire to make their case to voters – and to their political donors – that they belong in the race.
The state has consistently served as an important testing ground for Republican presidential candidates, particularly for establishment Republicans.
In 2008, John McCain stunned the Republican field by winning the state after staging a political comeback – launching his campaign ahead of Mitt Romney who was in a close second. Mike Huckabee earned only third place even after winning Iowa and the vaunted candidacy of Mayor Rudy Giuliani fell to fourth place, effectively dooming his campaign.
New Hampshire voters still have plenty of opportunities to weigh the candidates before the February 9 primary. There are still three debates scheduled in 2016 before New Hampshire voters head to the polls – a Fox Business debate on January 14, a Fox News debate on January 28, and an ABC News debate in New Hampshire on February 6.
The inflated list of presidential candidates has already begun to sort itself out, but a dozen still remain who are desperate for a strong showing in the state.
Billionaire presidential candidate Donald Trump has been so consistently dominant in New Hampshire the political storyline in the state has been which Republican establishment candidate will place second.
Trump took the lead from Jeb Bush in July 2015 and hasn’t looked back since. He closed out 2015 with a rally in New Hampshire, mocking pundits who suggested that Trump supporters wouldn’t make it to the polls.
“You’ve stood here an hour and twenty minutes. I mean, what are you doing standing here all night long if you’re not gonna vote?” he asked incredulously in front of a massive crowd after Christmas.
Sending another signal to political pundits, Trump announced a huge ad campaign in the state to maintain the political dominance he has enjoyed in the campaign so far.
Trump has spent 20 days in the state according to a New Hampshire candidate tracker.
Christie is the biggest political surprise in New Hampshire right now – as polling confirms his steady rise in the state. Christie was only polling at two percent in October and missed the main stage in the Fox Business debate in November.
The mainstream media has already latched onto the “comeback kid” narrative, fascinated by his magnetic town hall performances and personal commitment to the state.
The highest polling governor in the state right now, Christie is campaigning as a seasoned executive in response to the challenges posed by freshmen senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.
Christie is already exhibiting characteristic confidence in his campaign, knowing he has already cultivated a wide following in New Hampshire. The New Jersey governor mocked establishment favorite Sen. Marco Rubio for being absent in the state as he wrapped up a lengthy bus tour before Christmas.
“We’ve been looking for Marco, but we can’t find him,” he joked on his bus in an interview with Morning Joe, pointing out that the Florida senator had done a quick town hall before leaving the state for New York City.
According to a New Hampshire candidate tracker, Christie has appeared in the state 61 days while Rubio has only spent 22.
Christie also took a shot at Rubio’s failure to appear for votes in the Senate – especially on the unpopular omnibus measure spearheaded by Speaker Paul Ryan.
“Dude, show up to work and vote no,” he said. “Just show up to work and vote no, and like if you don’t want to, then quit.”
Rubio’s Mad Dash
Marco Rubio’s political team was stung by the notion that he hadn’t been to New Hampshire enough or hasn’t been personable enough during his appearances with voters.
In response, the campaign announced a surge of events in New Hampshire and other early voting states for the New Year.
On Sunday, Rubio got more personal as he joined supporters to watch the Patriots game against the Miami Dolphins, swapping jokes with Patriots fans.
“You know how I know I’m old enough to be president? Because I remember when the Dolphins were good!” he joked at the event. His team surprisingly upset the more popular Patriots with a score of 20-10.
Rubio held four New Hampshire events on Sunday boasting of “standing-room-only” crowds as well as additional scheduled events in the state this week.
In response to Christie, Rubio pointed out that the New Jersey’s governor’s attendance record in his state wasn’t that great either – since he appeared to be spending all his time in New Hampshire.
Kasich and Jeb’s last stand
As the voting share continues to shrink for establishment candidates, John Kasich and Jeb Bush are signaling that they full intend to argue their case for staying in the race.
They do not intend to quit until voters in New Hampshire have had their say, although a poll before Christmas showed that Bush had six percent support and Kasich had eight.
The roughly 14 percent of the voting share being pulled by the combined candidates would be useful for either Christie or Rubio who are seeking an competitive advantage against Cruz or Trump.
Bush’s lead in New Hampshire cratered after his mediocre debate performances and his recent tangle with Trump was largely unsuccessful. “He’s a chaos candidate,” Bush said in the last debate referring to Trump, but the former Florida governor has been unable to shake the “low energy” brand that Trump stamped him with early on in the race.
As a sign that he intends to compete heavily in the state, his team announced an “all hands on deck” approach, by sending campaign staffers from Florida to New Hampshire – doubling its full-time staff in New Hampshire from 20 to 40, according to WMBR.
Bush’s “Right To Rise” Super PAC will also spend big in the state – as much as $10 million, according to the New York Times. Some of that money will be used for two Super Bowl ads.
Meanwhile Kasich has released a new ad campaign in New Hampshire reminding voters that “John Kasich never gives up” describing him as living “a hard-scrabble life in a rusty steel town.”
Cruz’s patient recruitment of grassroots conservatives has paid off in Iowa – and naturally has already contributed to his polling numbers in New Hampshire, as more conservatives are coalescing around his candidacy.
The Texas senator is already polling second in the state with minimal effort. Cruz is mostly relying on his anti-establishment reputation and his record of fighting for issues conservatives care about to drive his polling numbers. He is only casually courting New Hampshire voters in person, spending only 22 days in the state so far.
Cruz arguably won his fight with Rubio over the issue of immigration – one Rubio’s biggest weaknesses as a candidate – but has steered clear from specifically criticizing his fellow 2016 challengers.
Lindsey Graham quit his presidential race after it was clear he was getting zero traction in New Hampshire. After a December poll of the state showed him at zero percent he announced that he would move on – confident that his message of national security would be carried on by someone else.
Other candidates polling at zero percent in the state include Gov. Mike Huckabee, Jim Gilmore, and George Pataki, who’s now also out.
Ben Carson and Rand Paul both sank to five percent and Carly Fiorina only has four percent.