MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republicans seeking clarity in the race for the White House may not find it in New Hampshire after all.
The state has a history of thinning the herd, but this cycle, it may just add to the chaos.
Saturday’s charged debate helped change the dynamics of the contest, raising doubts about some candidacies and breathing new life into others. Traditionally, New Hampshire has been a critical juncture, where campaigns are often made or broken, but in 2016, all bets are off: Candidates are vowing to continue on through South Carolina and beyond.
Jeb Bush and John Kasich, in particular, claim to have found new momentum over the weekend, believing Marco Rubio’s stumble on the national stage Saturday helped them make a case for experience and reliability over fresh blood. Additionally, their respective home states of Florida and Ohio hold winner-take-all primaries on March 15.
Chris Christie, whose hits on Rubio may have helped his gubernatorial colleagues more than himself, is pushing a similar message, even though he trails the field by a significant margin. “I’ve got a flight scheduled for South Carolina on Wednesday morning,” Christie said at his final town-hall event before Granite State voters go to the polls. “I intend to take it.”
A CNN tracking poll released Monday found Donald Trump with 31 percent, Rubio with 17 percent and Ted Cruz at 14 percent, with the remaining candidates at 10 percent and below. But most campaigns believe polls are not reflective of the race at this stage, and that they are in a sense flying blind into the primary Tuesday. (The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Trump with a 16.3 percentage point lead over Rubio, who has a narrow advantage over Kasich, Cruz and Bush.)
If Trump wins and Rubio does manage a strong finish in New Hampshire — second place has come to be considered a victory of sorts — Rubio’s resiliency could expand his support into the next primaries while casting doubt on the durability of his rivals. Additionally, Rubio’s allies have begun to make the case that anti-Trump and anti-Cruz Republicans will need to unite around him after New Hampshire, rather than become mired in intraparty squabbling.
If Rubio finishes behind rivals such as Bush or Kasich, it would be considered a major blow to his campaign. But he would likely still continue on to South Carolina, where his campaign believes he is well positioned to win.
Similarly, Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses but is not expected to do nearly as well in New Hampshire, would likely move on to compete in South Carolina no matter how he fares on Tuesday.
As candidates weigh whether to prolong their campaigns after the primary, electability, momentum and finances will figure prominently. As former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman learned in 2012, even a good showing in New Hampshire can’t rescue a campaign short on momentum and money. Huntsman declared his third-place finish in New Hampshire that year a “ticket to ride.” He indeed subsequently boarded a flight to South Carolina — but shortly afterward dropped out of the race.
Among the moderate governors, Bush is in the best financial position to continue his campaign and has six events scheduled Wednesday and Thursday in the Palmetto State. “This is a long-haul process,” the former Florida governor told Politico this week. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Bush endorser, called his state “Bush country” in the spin room after Saturday’s debate. “He’s just got to be competitive here.”
Lack of money doesn’t appear to be stopping Christie. The New Jersey governor has three events planned in South Carolina even though his campaign has just $1 million cash on hand, as reported in the most recent quarter.
Kasich is looking ahead to the March 8 Michigan primary. “We’re going to spend a lot of time in Michigan; we think that’s a very important state for us,” Kasich told CNN on Monday.
Meanwhile, the Republican field will next debate Saturday in Greenville, S.C.
With just hours to go until the polls opened, many Granite Staters on Monday were still making up their minds about whom to support.
At Christie’s final town-hall gathering Monday night, roughly 20 percent of the audience members raised their hands when New Hampshire Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley asked undecided voters to identify themselves.
“I don’t know who can win. That’s why I’m completely undecided,” Mary Ecklund of Hooksett said during another Christie event. “It’s really difficult. It may be a more elimination of negatives versus inclusion of positives.”
Kasich has conducted more than 100 town-hall appearances in New Hampshire, and has been nearly singularly focused on the state. His super PAC ran ads on his behalf here before he even entered the race, helping him earn enough name recognition to make it to the first prime-time debate stage.
The Ohio governor has been pitching himself as a dose of positivity in what has been a campaign cycle of gloomy rhetoric. He promotes bipartisanship and has joked about running in the Democratic primary.
“I’ve just never been an enemy of the people who don’t think the way I do, or the enemy of people who serve in another party,” he said in Nashua over the weekend. “You can’t get any of the big things done in America without both parties.”
Kasich has said he needs a strong performance here to continue, but hasn’t specified what, exactly, that would be. He attributes his competitiveness, however, to his message and believes there is an appetite for it beyond New Hampshire.
“I understand this bus is going to South Carolina,” he told reporters after a campaign stop before hopping aboard.