Republican Rand Paul is showing early strength for a possible 2016 presidential bid in the first primary state, where a Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm New Hampshire Poll shows him running slightly ahead of more established names.
When 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney is removed from the mix, the Kentucky senator and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie share the top spot, with each drawing 16 percent support from likely Republican primary voters. Romney, who has repeatedly said he has no plans to run for president a third time, leads the potential pack with 30 percent when included.
While Paul may be considered controversial among Republicans in Washington because of his ties to the party's Tea Party wing, New Hampshire Republicans don't see him that way. His favorable rating is the best of the potential 2016 Republican field, with 65 percent of likely primary voters viewing him positively and just 19 percent negatively. That’s on par with the state's Republican senator, Kelly Ayotte.
That appeal isn't lost on the competition. “I would think that Rand Paul would have significant appeal in New Hampshire because there is a very strong libertarian streak in our state,” said Terry Shumaker, a Democratic activist in Manchester.
By comparison, Christie is viewed favorably by just 50 percent of likely Republican primary voters, while a third view him unfavorably. The governor's unfavorable rating was the highest of any of the 10 potential Republican candidates tested in the poll.
That trepidation reflects an open question about a potential Christie candidacy: Whether his brash style will be accepted in Iowa and New Hampshire. He made national news last month when he told a constituent who was critical of New Jersey's response to mega-storm Sandy to “sit down and shut up.”
“It's that aspect of the persona that has given people some pause,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and longtime primary watcher who supported Romney in 2012. “It's an issue you hear come up with people.”
Romney won New Hampshire's primary four years ago. His popularity—in part fueled by his history as governor of neighboring Massachusetts—is still strong in the state.
With Romney removed from the list of potential candidates, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has the next highest level of support at 14 percent, followed by neurosurgeon-turned-conservative-activist Ben Carson at 9 percent. While known by just 39 percent of Republican primary voters, Carson is for now competitive with better-known names. The retired doctor registered higher than the 8 percent received by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, 7 percent for 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, 5 percent for Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, 4 percent for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and 3 percent for Texas Governor Rick Perry.
The poll was conducted by Washington-based Purple Insights Nov. 12-18 and included 407 likely Republican primary voters. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
New Hampshire and Iowa are politically, geographically and economically different states, yet Republicans in both places seem to be sorting out the still-emerging field in similar ways. A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll of likely 2016 Republican caucusgoers conducted in October also showed Paul and Carson with early strength in the state that hosts the first nomination balloting. In that survey, Carson received 11 percent and Paul 10 percent in what is still a mostly undefined field of potential candidates.
“Some of that is Rand Paul and a lot of it is Ron Paul,” said Rath, noting that Paul's father in 2012 finished second in both Iowa and New Hampshire. “He inherits a substantial block of voters from his father.”
The early polling is certain to change in the coming months, as local coverage of the primary is added to the mix of what has been mostly national coverage. Rath said that the “center-right” part of the potential candidate lineup, a group where he places Bush, is still unformed. “Until you get a decision, yes or no, his numbers don't really mean much,” he said.
Paul has already visited New Hampshire three times this year, while Christie has been there four times. “One of the advantages that both Christie and Rand Paul already have is that they are already running,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “They are here, they are hiring staff and they are moving around the state.”
New Hampshire primary voters say they are much more likely to pick a candidate who closely aligns with their views on issues over someone who has the best chance of winning the presidency in a general election. On that question, 77 percent say issues are more important to them than winning.
In hypothetical 2016 match-ups, Hillary Clinton would have the potential to draw even some Republican primary voters. Against Jeb Bush, she attracts 11 percent of the Republican primary vote and against Paul she attracts 12 percent.
—Annie Linskey and Lisa Lerer contributed to this report.