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WINDHAM, New Hampshire—Sen. Marco Rubio’s short circuiting on the Saturday before New Hampshire’s primary has given a renewed glimmer of hope to those candidates who’ve staked their entire bids on doing well in the nation’s first primary on Tuesday. Even at this late date the state’s many center-right voters remain unbound. Republican Party operatives, looking toward potential general-election matchups, had hoped those voters would have flocked to Rubio en masse by now, but no dice. If Gov. Chris Christie or Gov. John Kasich is to survive beyond New Hampshire, they’ll need as many of those votes as they can get. And both men are hustling very hard to get them.
“I don’t know what I’m doing yet, I can’t believe it,” said Ann Tosca of Hudson before attending a town hall with Christie in Hudson on Monday. “I always know what I’m doing, and I like the rallying. I’ve never not known this [close to the vote].” Tosca saw Rubio on Sunday but is still considering Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. In fact, she was “all set for Rubio” as the weekend started, but by Sunday night had changed her mind and now thinks she’s “headed for Christie.” It was Rubio’s debate performance that unsettled her, and all she wanted to hear from Christie before committing to him was a promise that he wouldn’t take away her Social Security.
Mark Wymmer of Windham, who’s between Bush and Carly Fiorina but came out to see Christie anyway, also isn’t sold on the establishment’s dreamboat. “[Rubio]’s a fine candidate, but he’s just too junior,” Wymmer said. “I think if he comes around next time, in the next election, I might take a better look at him. But I think he’s way too junior right now.”
“We had Obama, and [Rubio]’s another ‘yes we can’ sort of thing,” said Dennis Butterfield, also of Windham, who came to see Gov. John Kasich’s 105th New Hampshire town hall Monday at Windham’s Searles Chapel. “So many of them are saying, ‘yes we can,’ just like Obama, and I’m not buying it.”
The suspicion that Rubio may be a lightweight is one that Christie, especially, enjoys fanning. He fanned it all last week, calling Rubio the “boy in the bubble.” He fanned it during Saturday night’s debate, with great success. And now he definitely won’t stop fanning it in “the final 34 hours,” as he said at his first Monday morning town hall.
Christie told all the undecided voters in attendance how grateful he was that so many of them waited until Saturday night before making up their minds. “I think you saw Saturday night that when the lights get really bright,” Christie said, “and they were really bright Saturday night—13 and a half million people watching on television, big crowd in that assembly room, and the media of the United States all watching—you either shine, or you melt. We cannot afford to have a president who melts.”
Christie and Kasich have run similarly resource-constrained campaigns. The strategy is to just do as many town halls as possible in New Hampshire and hope that the rewards eventually come, as they did for Sen. John McCain in 2008. For either of them, those rewards would likely have to come as a second- or maybe third-place finish to justify their airfare to South Carolina for next week’s primary. (There’s also plenty of pressure on Jeb Bush, but he seems determined to march onto South Carolina no matter what, brother in tow.) Kasich and Christie even share a similar “brand,” as the straight-shooting experienced governors who will take a billion of your questions to show off all their masterful skills and unrivaled, hard-earned knowledge of how things work.
But they’re not entirely similar. Each likes to interact and joke with their audiences, though Christie’s “joking” famously veers towards a strain of Jerseyan ball-breaking. It either works for you or it doesn’t; some find it entertaining in the moment but aren’t prepared to commit to this sort of character as their national executive for an extended period of time. There’s also the sense that Christie, though presenting himself as authenticity manifest, is almost performing a highly workshopped version of the character “Chris Christie.” He knows you’re coming to see the Chris Christie Authenticity Show, and he’s prepared his mannerisms and body language accordingly, which doesn’t end up reading as so authentic.
Kasich really is unrehearsed. He just grabs the microphone and tells a story about a store or a car he saw on the way over, and how that reminded him of one time when he was in grade school or whatever, and then he recognizes that he has gotten sidetracked and tells people to raise their hands for questions. He dispatches with questions quickly. He doesn’t use them as jumping-off points for one of his prepared “riffs,” as Christie does, and he’s not afraid to tell people that their beloved reforms aren’t politically possible. When someone in Windham on Monday asked him whether he would impose term limits on Congress, for example—something most presidential candidates usually respond to with a passionately affirmative response—Kasich said, “if you think Congress is going to pass [term limits for itself], you and I are gonna walk out this door and we are going to flap our arms and we are going to fly all the way to Boston, OK? It ain’t gonna happen.”
Kasich is doing reasonably well in New Hampshire. But will it be enough? There’s an impression out there of Kasich as the race’s Squishy Moderate that he needs to dispatch, even in moderate-friendly New Hampshire. One woman, for example, told him that though he “seem[s] to be really nice,” how would he beat Hillary? “When the fists start flying, you need someone who’s going to get a little … dirty.”
“A little dirty, huh?” Kasich said, to laughs. “Let’s think about that for a while.” He added, several times for emphasis, that he’s “a nice guy, but you don’t want to mess with me.”
Kasich conceded that he gets “criticized” for the squish reputation, because he really does believe that bipartisanship is the only means of solving big problems even if his credentials are legitimately conservative. That shockingly moderate understanding of … how the U.S. political system is designed, really … has apparently given some people the completely wrong impression of his political beliefs. One younger woman at the town hall told the candidate that she is choosing between him, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. “So my question,” she said, “is why should I vote for you in the Democratic primary?”
Christie and Kasich are trying to win New Hampshire votes one-by-one, whereas Rubio has spent considerably less time here and doesn’t revel in the joy of hourlong question-and-answer periods. They’re keeping tabs, too. Kasich told the woman who thought he was a Democrat that she should call him and tell him how she voted after the primary. “If you don’t vote for me,” he quickly corrected himself, “maybe you shouldn’t call. I might cry.”
Christie, who has more ground to make up, did win a couple of votes during Monday morning’s program. One of them was, in the end, Ann Tosca, who had the opportunity to ask Christie her question about Social Security and found his answer satisfactory—even though Christie’s plan involves both raising the retirement age and means-testing benefits. He won her vote the old-fashioned way: by getting on one knee in front of where she was seated to answer her.