Two nights ago the Vermont and New Hampshire Republican Party county committees held a joint fundraiser in Lebanon, N.H. featuring many of the Republican presidential candidates or their representatives and, as part of my ongoing series chronicling the presidential campaign, your intrepid blogger shelled out $35 to attend the candidate forum. Since the event was titled the “2015 Connecticut River Run,” I initially thought the candidates might be running a road race, and the prospect of seeing a red-faced Chris Christie in spandex, barreling down the finish line while knocking aside Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and the other candidates like so many ten pins, seemed well worth the price of admission. Alas, this turned out to be a much more staid event held indoors at the local Elks Club. A big elk head stood hanging behind the speaker’s podium, unblinking, evidently hanging on every word, which provided a nice backdrop as the candidates made their pitch. (My biggest twitter reaction all night was in response to my tweet calling the elk a moose head.)
Only about 50-70 people attended (including Vermont Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott), most of them middle-aged or older, so we were able to get good seats (sitting alongside Vermont gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne who is as low-key and unpretentious in person as he seems on television) at a table near the front of the hall, where I chowed down on lobster rolls and finger food while live tweeting the event. Here are my notes from the event.
As I have noted in previous posts, several Republican candidates have staked their hopes on doing well in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation’s primary. For many of them, the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino has given them an opportunity to highlight their more hawkish foreign policy views in the hope that national security issues will become increasingly relevant in the campaign. With only two months left before the primary, however, their opportunities to make an impression with New Hampshire voters are dwindling, and so even smaller events like this draw candidates – particularly those in the second tier who are struggling to gain traction. Not surprisingly, then, the candidates who made personal appearances included Lindsey Graham, John Kasich and George Pataki – all of whom are polling in single digits (or lower!) in the Granite State. The rest of the Republican hopefuls had surrogates making pitches on their behalf. Here is the latest aggregate polling averages for the New Hampshire Republican primary:
The format was simple: each candidate (or their surrogate) had up to 15 minutes to make their case before yielding the podium to the next in line. You might think that with only 15 minutes to talk, one wouldn’t learn much about the candidates, but instead the need to boil their candidacy down to its essential features proved quite useful. With no time to spare, each candidate was forced to focus on what they thought was their strongest selling point.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, introduced by his sister Darlene, led off the proceedings. After complimenting Vermont Republicans who attended for their “political courage” living in a heavily blue state, and then taking a brief shot at the way the media used national polling to influence their coverage of the race (Graham has been excluded from the top debate stage due to low national polling numbers) he proceeded to launch into his signature issue – the need to put 5,000 U.S. ground troops into Iraq to defeat ISIL. Graham has moderated his hawkish foreign policy tendencies a bit – he now emphasizes that most of the fighting will be done by a much larger Arab ground force (90% of the coalitional forces) led by Americans, and that U.S. troops will not remain once ISIL is defeated. Still, he is clearly hoping the recent terrorist attack will refocus the campaign on foreign policy issues – particular the fight against ISIL. After briefly reminding the audience that his mother could not have raised their family without government assistance, Graham concluded by referencing his humble roots, asking rhetorically, “Can a person who grew up behind a bar become President of the United States? I don’t know!” I’ve said it before – Graham is an underappreciated candidate, one who deserves a more prominent platform than the media has given him to date, but at this point one wonders whether he is really angling for an appointment in the next Republican administration as Secretary of Defense.
If you want to know why Jeb! Bush’s candidacy is struggling, last night’s presentation by his surrogate, former U.S. Attorney General Mike Mukasey, provided some clues. Mukasey was introduced as someone who New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer thought would make a good Supreme Court justice. That prompted Mukasey to spend the first part of his speech explaining why Schumer would push Mukasey’s name for the highest court in the land. That vignette might have been interesting if Mukasey was running for President, but he’s not – at least I don’t think he is. When he finally got around to discussing Jeb!, he did so in such a low-key tone that you might have thought he was describing what he had for breakfast. It was a decidedly unimpressive presentation, made more so when Ohio Governor John Kasich, not even bothering to stop and remove his jacket, dashed in, grabbed the microphone and proceed to give a much more animated and folksy presentation. Kasich, adopting the role of Pastor-in-Chief, eschewed discussing policy to speak instead on the importance of having meaning in life and how the lack of such meaning is fueling both the growing drug addiction among the young and the ability of ISIL to recruit disaffected Muslims. “I know it’s not a good political speech,” Kasich acknowledged, but he attributed his spiritual focus to the Christmas season. (Each table was festooned with a poinsettia centerpiece, which the organizers then forced us to buy in order to exit the premises; my wife charitably forked over the $5 extortion fee to set us free.)
Former New York Governor George Pataki, dressed as always in jacket and tie, gave probably the most energized speech of the night, one that drew a rare round of applause from a crowd that for the most part seemed content to sit on its hands. More than anyone else on the dais, Pataki used the San Bernardino attack as a talking point to buttress his belief that the country needs to declare war on ISIL, and he repeatedly linked the recent terrorist attack to 9-11 which occurred while he was Governor of New York. “We must attack them there,” he thundered, “or they will attack us here.” His talk was sprinkled with references to radical Islam and at one point he dared Attorney General Lynch to prosecute him for using those words – a line that drew cheers from the audience. Pataki advocated shutting down internet sites that actively encourage terrorism and doing the same to community settings, including mosques, that preach violence. He mentioned that he has two sons serving in the military, and thus appreciates what it means to send soldiers to war. Pataki was the only candidate who took questions. When asked about how to deal with arrogant bureaucrats in Washington DC, he said he would get rid of them, citing as precedent his actions shrinking state government as New York’s Governor. In response to a second question regarding how to deal with Russia’s presence in the Syria, he said he would work with Turkey to set up a no-fly zone.
Former Governor Jim Gilmore was scheduled to speak after Pataki and I was curious to see how he would be received. Alas, in what can only be seen as a fitting metaphor for his presidential campaign, Gilmore never showed up, and no one could say where he was. After the Gilmore no show, there came a succession of surrogates representing candidates Rubio, Fiorina, Cruz, Christie, Carson, Trump and Paul. They were an interesting mix. Rubio was represented by Randy Johnson, a former Florida Representative who claimed he knew there was something special about Rubio the moment he met him. Cruz’s representative – former New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O’Brien – made it clear that Cruz would not compromise his conservative values if elected. Rather than extol her virtues, Fiorina’s spokesman Gene Chandler (another former NH House Speaker) directed listeners to her website which lists the six objectives of her campaign. Trump’s surrogate, Fred Ducette (I hope I have his name correctly spelled) apologized for not being a politician and also for feeling too ill to speak at length. After fumbling to make the microphone work, he then proceeded to list Trump’s virtues – “He’s beholden to no one!” – promised that Trump would make America great, and exited. Rand Paul’s representative took the libertarian approach, declining to speak at the podium (he may have been reluctant to touch the microphone after Ducette coughed all over it) and instead offering to meet interested parties in the back of the room. Carson’s surrogate began by noting that the Good Doctor had led a surgical group in a lengthy and ultimately successful effort to separate conjoined twins, so he knew the virtue of teamwork. Only Santorum and Huckabee didn’t bother sending representatives which I expect reflects their realization that their brand of social conservatism is not going to play well in New Hampshire.
Never too shy to express an opinion, Donald Trump has for some weeks now been calling for candidates who are languishing in the polls to drop out of the race, arguing that this will give the real candidates more time on stage to make their case. I understand The Donald’s point. But there is something to admire in candidates like Graham and Pataki, both of whom are drawing less than 1% in aggregate polling in New Hampshire, and yet who nonetheless continue to push on, moving from Elks Lodge to Legion Hall to public library, crisscrossing the state to passionately make the case for why they should be elected President. It may be that at this point they are running for something else – a cabinet post, or a television talk show – rather than the presidency. Whatever their motivation, and however unrealistic their chances at winning, there is still some virtue in having them out there, making their case and discussing the issues in person to the voters. New Hampshire offers a unique opportunity for voters to meet so many of these candidates before they are winnowed. Graham captured this sentiment, I think, when he told the audience why keeping New Hampshire’s primary first in the nation is so important: “It’s the last best chance for democracy to work at the local level.” That may be somewhat melodramatic (and politically self-serving too!) But where else can you shake hands with a potential president of the United States, and bring home a slice of Presidential Political Americana in the process?