GOP Establishment Candidates Pile Up in N.H. Traffic Jam

GOP Establishment Candidates Pile Up in N.H. Traffic Jam
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MANCHESTER, N.H. — At a meet and greet in a small, dimly lit VFW room, Jeb Bush was wrapping up a round of questions when one man cut to the heart of Bush’s challenge in New Hampshire.

“If you don’t mind me just asking point blank: There’s a lot of candidates out there that are saying basically the same things you’re saying,” said Richard Malik, who has not decided whom he will support in the New Hampshire primary. “In 60 seconds or less, why should we vote for you?”

“Because I’ve done it,” Bush said at the event last week. “I have a proven record. There are a lot of really gifted talkers. But if you look at Hillary Clinton’s record —”

“I’m not talking about Hillary,” Malik interjected. “I’m talking about you.”

Bush insisted he was talking about himself, too, and after a few more minutes concluded: “No one comes close to the record I have, or the detailed plans that I’ve laid out. That’s the difference. That’s the difference.”

Whether New Hampshire voters can see the difference, roughly two weeks before the state’s pivotal primary, will decide whether Bush’s candidacy survives beyond the Granite State. The same goes for Govs. John Kasich and Chris Christie. Like Bush, they are stressing their executive experience, and they are betting everything on New Hampshire.

But none of these governors has been able to harness a breakthrough moment, nor has one collected the lion’s share of key endorsements. Each has remained relatively static in polls, in the high single digits or low double digits. Sen. Marco Rubio, who is also chasing some of the same Republican voters, is in the same mire. It is the political equivalent of the prisoner’s dilemma: Because each thinks he can win, all of them might lose.

And most would-be voters here continue to distinguish among this crush of similar candidates, mostly by personality: Bush, the thoughtful policy wonk; Rubio, the fresh face; Kasich, the sunny, self-proclaimed “prince of light”; Christie, the aggressive straight-talker.

The traffic jam has all but guaranteed that none of them will win the New Hampshire primary. Many Republican strategists now privately predict that Donald Trump will come out on top. "I want to be the No. 1 governor,” Christie told NH1 News in an interview this week, appropriately lowering expectations.

“I know you have a lot of choices. One out of six Republicans are running for president,” Rubio said during a rally last week in Merrimack, N.H., to knowing laughter. “I appreciate the tough choice that lies ahead. You have to choose between a couple of people you like a lot.” 

This is more familiar territory for the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which in recent elections has failed to consolidate support as multiple would-be standard-bearers fought for the same voters and among each other.

This year, the script has flipped, with Trump occupying a lane of his own, and with many conservatives coalescing around Ted Cruz. Meanwhile, more moderate Republicans have remained paralyzed by choice.

Endorsements by influential news organizations and elected officials, which typically help steer conflicted voters toward a candidate, have only muddied the waters further. After he dropped out of the race for president, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham endorsed Bush, even at a stage when Republicans doubted he could bounce back. The New Hampshire Union-Leader last year endorsed Christie, but the Boston Globe announced Monday that it is endorsing Kasich.

“The GOP needs to settle on one candidate to take the fight to Trump and Cruz,” the Globe’s editorial board noted in its endorsement, apparently without irony.

The candidates have not done much better differentiating themselves on substance than have their backers. To hear them tell it, each is a results-oriented consensus builder who will get things done in Washington. In this spirit, Bush’s campaign recently began distributing a 47-page magazine detailing his stances across 16 policy areas; Bush loves the glossy and plugs it at his events. 

Meanwhile, the campaigns have formed a circular firing squad with attack ads targeting each other all at once, but apparently wounding each other equally.

After a final rally in New Hampshire before he would decamp to Iowa ahead of the caucuses, Bush was asked by RealClearPolitics if he thought he’d made a strong enough case in the Granite State that voters there could now pick him out of a lineup.

“I feel good. I think I’m making a pretty good case, and we’re getting a lot of converts,” Bush said. “So, everything’s good.”

But a few days earlier, back at the VFW, Malik was wavering. He liked the Bush family and had supported them before; now, he was leaning toward Kasich or Christie. But what difference did it really make? If they all departed slightly in style, on fundamental policy they seemed indistinguishable.

“And that’s the thing,” he sighed.

At that moment, Graham, who had joined Bush for the event as a hype man and comedic sidekick, walked by on his way out the door. “That was a great question,” he said, turning to Malik.

For the three governors after New Hampshire’s heart, it might be the only question left to answer. 

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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