Southern N.H. is Happy Hunting Ground for Candidates Seeking GOP Voters

Jan 25, 2016

If you live in New Hampshire's North Country, or along the Vermont border, you’ve probably had a chance to meet the candidates. But that was then. Now, two or so weeks from Primary Day, the action is all down south.

  "This is just simple math, you hunt where the ducks are," says Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "And the vote is in southern-central New Hampshire."

Cullen points out: there are more people in the town of Derry than in all of Coos County. And towns in this slice of the state tend to lean more Republican than almost anywhere else in New Hampshire.

How Republican? In the last governor’s race, Democrat Maggie Hassan won with 52 percent of the statewide vote. But her Republican opponent easily carried many of the towns wedged in this tiny triangle South of Manchester. He won 60 percent of the vote in Bedford, Pelham, Windham, and Litchfield.

All of this explains why Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Jeb Bush spent much of Saturday stumping within a 10 mile radius of each other.

The towns between Manchester and the Massachusetts border form the most densely populated -- and Republican-leaning -- region of New Hampshire. GOP candidates for president have been frequent visitors to this narrow slice of the state. Each red dot represents a Republican campaign stop this primary season.
Credit Rebecca Lavoie / NHPR

It's early afternoon, and Kasich stands in a smoky VFW hall in Milford. Behind him, a permanent fixture here: a big digital clock that ticks up the national debt—it was at about $58,000 per person at 2pm, and updating every millisecond.

"I wanna talk about this clock, okay?" Kasich tells the crowd. "$58,000 -- that’s what everyone owes, our children you know they gotta pay that."

It's a familiar issue among Republicans this primary—reducing the national debt -- and Kasich cast himself as someone who can balance a budget and fix social security.

These campaign points play well in this Republican-friendly region – and Bush knows that, too. Just across Route 3 in Pelham, a few hundred people gathered for a Bush town hall in Pelham an hour after Kasich's event.

John Jozokos just wants a Republican in the White House. He saw Chris Christie nearby a few weeks ago, and was impressed.

"I like what they all have to say," Jozokos says. "Anybody but Hillary."

And on Saturday, Bush wasn’t seeking to differentiate himself from Democrat Hillary Clinton.  Instead, he spent his time taking  jab after jab at the GOP front runner, Donald Trump.

"A conservative needs to win the Republican nomination," Bush says. "A proven conservative. Not someone who’s an entertainer. Not someone who’s Johnny-come-lately to the conservative cause."

Who is the proven conservative? That’s what these voters are trying to figure out. And, what candidates are trying to prove – in this particular part of the state.

By early evening, the action has shifted to Londonderry, 12 miles north, where Kasich’s bus tour has touched down once again. It’s the same set, with the debt clock, the same jokes, and the same message of getting things done.

"You know what stands in the way of being able to improve the tax code and balance the budget and save your social security, you know what gets in the way?" Kasich asks this crowd. "Politics, ego, partisanship."

Many voters living in this Republican-leaning region have seen several candidates this campaign -- and some candidates numerous times.

It’s pretty easy to shop around, though maybe not easy to come to a conclusion.

Roland and Nancy Shrull of Windham say a balanced budget and immigration are big issues for them, but they aren’t rushing to come to a conclusion.

"There are a couple of the candidates that I’m looking at," Roland Shrull says. "One is Mr. Kasich, the other is Christie and the other is Bush."

"I’m still figuring it out too," his wife adds.

In fact, the couple had to decide which candidate to see today: Kasich or Bush.

Once Kasich wraps up it’s another short hop, over to Merrimack, where the Bush campaign has made its second stop of the evening.

Again, the crowd runs the gamut. You’ve got plenty of Bush devotees, like Barbara and Rick Courtemanche

"This is our third time coming to see him, and each time I’m more impressed," Barbara Courtemanche says.

Other folks are still just starting to weigh their options. For instance, Emily Alexander of Merrimack says this Bush event was the first she had attended this year.

But the candidates themselves have been on the trail long enough that things are starting to get a bit hazy.

"I was in um… gosh now I’m trying to remember," Bush says at one point. "Derry. I think it was Derry or Londonderry. It’s beginning to be a blur, to be honest with you."

It's understandable. Bush has had 23 events in this narrow slice of the state since the campaign started. And it’s pretty safe to assume that as the primary rounds the final bend, Republican candidates will continue to be here hunting here.