Trump Mania Eclipses Bush at Twin N.H. Town-Halls

Trump Mania Eclipses Bush at Twin N.H. Town-Halls
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DERRY, N.H.— Anyone skeptical of Donald Trump’s impact on the Republican presidential race need look no further than a pair of nearby campaign events Wednesday in the first primary state of New Hampshire.

Trump drew over 2,000 people, who waited hours in line, as well as a hoard of national media, for an event that felt like a high school pep rally. The opponent being targeted there? Jeb Bush, mascot of the establishment, who was simultaneously holding his own, much smaller and more subdued, event roughly 25 minutes away in Merrimack.

“Have I gotten under Jeb Bush’s skin?” Trump shrugged slyly when asked during a press conference before his first official town-hall gathering here at the Pinkerton Academy, intended by the campaign to steal the Granite State spotlight from the former Florida governor.

“I don’t see how he’s electable. Bush is a low-energy person,” he said. “It’s hard for him to get things done.”

Bush has largely refrained from engaging Trump, whose presence in the race was thought to provide a foil that would make Bush appear more presidential and compassionate by comparison. But Trump has risen in the polls while Bush is starting to fall. By Wednesday night, it was clear that Trump’s bite had finally stung.

“Mr. Trump doesn’t have a proven conservative record. He was a Democrat longer in the last decade than he was a Republican,” Bush said. “The language is pretty vitriolic for sure. But hundreds of millions of dollars to implement his [immigration] plan is not a conservative plan.”

Bush then tweeted: “Calling it like I see it. @RealDonaldTrump is a tax-hiking democrat.” His campaign staff flagged the quote for reporters and distributed the video clip, a messaging push that marked a strategy shift in dealing with the frontrunner.

Trump’s takeover in New Hampshire is especially problematic for Bush, who has seen the moderate-leaning, more temperate electorate there as likely to provide him with a needed victory.

“The reason I talk about Jeb is because he was supposed to do well in New Hampshire, but he’s going down like a rock,” Trump said during his town-hall to cheers from a crowd that was more rowdy and generous with applause for the host -- and with boos for his rivals -- than those at most political events. “These are my people!” he said.

The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Trump leading Bush in the state by more than 13 percentage points. Additionally troublesome is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, now running just a point behind Bush after just one month in the race.

The rise of Trump is apparently fueled by a deep thirst within the base of the GOP for a straight-talking non-politician, which places a particular burden on Bush, the son and brother of presidents.

“We already had two Bushes,” said Dan Caron of Derry, while waiting outside for over an hour to see Trump, echoing an often-heard assessment here. “It’s time for a change,” said his wife, Karen, noting she is also interested in outsiders Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. “This is the first time I’ve ever been to anything like this.”

If there were any doubts about Trump’s Teflon-like campaign — none of his gaffes or bombastic overstatements seem to stick to him, as would be the case with any other candidate — Trump made it clear Tuesday night.

“I’m not going anywhere, folks” he said. “I’ve got a lot of money.”

Trump supporters here love that their candidate is able to eschew political correctness and thrive amid attacks from his own party; that he is not beholden to donors; and that he is keeping the other contenders on their toes, especially on the issue of immigration.

“I desperately want him to stay in the race and keep in the lead because the establishment Republicans — the anger out here is palpable,” said Mark Hollands as he waited with his wife, Cheryl, to get into Trump’s event. “We’ve got a Republican House and Senate and they haven’t done a damn thing. They promise, promise, promise, and they don’t do anything.” Trump, he says, can do something. And at the very least, “he certainly is shaking them up.”

Trump’s hold on the race extends beyond the national and early state polls. Other candidates have built opposition to Trump into their own presidential strategies – with unintended consequences. Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham have seen their numbers go down after targeting him.

Perhaps noting that, Scott Walker this week took aim at his own party’s establishment and tried to evoke an anti-politician fervor as his poll numbers have slipped. And all of the candidates have responded to Trump on difficult issues like immigration, which took center stage this week after the businessman announced his plan to end birthright citizenship, build a wall at the Mexican border, and deport undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, Trump is thoroughly enjoying his hold on the campaign. “The only thing that is constant is Trump,” he said regarding the ups and downs of other candidates in the polls.

For an anti-politician upstart, Trump certainly loves talking about politics — particularly polls (to near obsession), media interviews and articles about him, and political fundraising. And while he is running as an outsider, Trump has mastered the politician’s art: He tells voters exactly what many want to hear. Under a Trump administration, everyone will have jobs, undocumented immigrants will be quickly deported, a “Trump Wall” on the southern border will be built at Mexico’s expense, ISIS will be defeated, Obamacare will be replaced “by my plan that will be so much better,” China and Russia will be handled, Iran won’t get a nuclear weapon or a deal, and everything will be “spectacular.”

Trump supporters have made clear they dislike politicians, especially when they promise and don’t deliver. Trump is certainly making a lot of promises. The difference, however, is that his fans seem to believe him, or at least have faith that he will get farther than anyone else in addressing their concerns.

“Most of these career politicians don’t understand,” said John Reddy, who came to see Trump with his wife, Kim. “He immediately gets credit from me for having solved problems on massive levels, and I’m confident that plans from Trump will be well thought out, well researched, and have a much higher probability of success than someone who has no real-world experience.”

That trust in Trump transcends interest in specifics. “I really don’t want him to lay out his political papers on everything because that’s just what politicians do,” Kim Reddy said. “Just be the opposite of that!”

Trump acknowledged this later during his town-hall event. “I think only the press actually wants policy positions,” he said, noting that he doesn’t like to put out multi-point white papers because problems and their solutions evolve and require flexibility. “But when it comes to policy, I’m going to give you wonderful policy positions.”

Trump supporters seem content with those generalities because they like his style and background. After the main gathering in the school auditorium, Trump held a brief separate session in the packed overflow room. When Barbi Desroches, from nearby Methuen, Mass., told Trump of her three college-age kids struggling to pay for school and find jobs after graduation, the candidate nodded and simply said he would bring the jobs back. When a young audience member said he has been “screwed” by the current administration in terms of opportunities, Trump said that under his watch, young people would have “really great jobs.”

Desroches said that while she wanted to hear more from Trump, his answer was sufficient: “He’s always done what’s right for his company so he’s going to do what’s right for his nation.”

Right now, at least, specifics don’t seem to matter for those who like Trump. It’s the overall message that resonates.

“We love it,” said Cheryl Hollands. “We are sick of being told we can’t say certain things. They want to excommunicate him, but people want to support him, and they want him to keep going. They want to see what’s going to happen next.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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