Several presidential candidates have put New Hampshire at the very center of their campaign strategies this year. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has called New Hampshire "must-win," while Ohio Governor John Kasich hopes success in the Granite State will help make up for a late entry into the very large GOP field. In campaign tours through the state this week, however, the two candidates' prospects seemed headed in very different directions.
For Paul, it's been a long journey to this point; he started visiting the state more than two years ago, and he has returned often since. He lent his support to Republicans here in last year's midterm elections and ponied up cash from his campaign fundraising committee. The goal was to broaden the base of support here enjoyed by his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, who finished second in the 2012 New Hampshire primary.
And as recently as last fall, polls indicated Rand Paul was a top contender for his party's nomination. Now they suggest he’s deep in the pack. Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP, said developments such as the rise of ISIS have put Paul in a tough spot, given his foreign policy stances.
“You know, he started with the fact that his father got 23 percent of the vote," Cullen said. "But times have changed, and the anti-interventionist, neo-isolationist tendency within the party has, I think, moved into the background. And now he’s competing with 16 other candidates, and he sort of blends in.”
On his swing through New Hampshire this week, Paul worked hard to stand out. As he tends to, he noted issues other Republicans rarely touch, like criminal justice reform, and the need for the GOP to appeal to minority voters. But the biggest big focus for Paul, this trip at least, was punching, upward, at current frontrunner Donald Trump.
“So if you want to elect somebody who says people are bleeding or stupid or pigs go right ahead, but I want to fix the country," Paul told a crowd at St. Anselm College in Manchester Tuesday. "You know, if we’re not going to be serious about this, this is serious business and we need someone is serious.”
He made similar comments during stops in Claremont and at Riley’s Gun Shop in Hooksett. Paul was also quick to cite polls stressing his own electability.
“There was a poll just last week by WMUR that had me leading Hillary Clinton," Paul said. "And so I think ultimately I think we are the only Republican that actually leads Hillary Clinton in five states won by President Obama.”
But Paul campaign adviser Mike Buindo acknowledged polls this early in the race almost always cut both ways.
“You know how this works, I mean, polls at this time?" Biundo said. "We’ve had Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry, leading the pack in years past. It’s going to be up and down.”
If things for Paul have been down of late, the reverse is true for Kasich.
Speaking to packed a VFW hall in Derry Wednesday, Kasich said he was "touched" by the attention. Many people in attendance said they were attracted by Kasich’s performance in the first GOP debate last week. Others said they were intrigued by the Kasich they know only from a TV ad that’s been hard to miss this summer due to a $4 million dollar buy. The ad describes Kasich's background, including his mailcarrier father, in all-American tones.
Kasich has climbed to third place in New Hampshire in recent polls, and he’s also snagged some high-profile endorsements. Concord attorney Tom Rath, who’s advised many presidential candidates over the years, signed on this week. Rath said Kasich’s personality and record as a congressman and governor bring something valuable to this race. And his timing, Rath said, appears to be good.
“I think everybody has a moment, and when you get that moment you take advantage of it, and I’m not saying this is the moment, but it is a moment," Rath said. "And for the last month or so, as I’ve gone around people have continually said to me, 'What about Kasich?'”
But for core GOP voters, that question may come with an edge. In Derry, Kasich was asked about the Common Core education standards, which he backs. He was also questioned on immigration; Kasich favors a path to legal status. Kasich has also embraced expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, another position scorned by many conservatives.
These stances may not doom him in New Hampshire, where the open primary means more moderates can cast GOP ballots than in most other states. But history shows to win the state's primary, you need to win the support of the party faithful. In Derry, Kasich indicated he was game to try.
“Hopefully, in the course of all this, I’ll begin to change some of the thinking about what it means to be a conservative," he said.
Redefining conservatism is probably easier said than done. Just ask Rand Paul