Republican candidates and potential candidates—17 in all—were in New Hampshire over the weekend to speak to voters at the “First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit.” The event’s name refers to the state’s status as the home of the first presidential primary every four years.
Style: More confident and focused than even in his well-received announcement speech. Led off with a string of jokes about Clinton, kids, and campaigns. Then turned earnest, keeping the crowd hushed and largely rapt, culminating with a resounding, sustained standing ovation.
Substance: Laid out his agenda on taxes, education, and other issues with more purpose than detail, but made it powerful by fusing it with vivid descriptions of America’s needs.
Best moment: Closed with an extended passage about the nation’s future and the urgency of moving in a new direction immediately.
Worst moment: Rambled a bit at the end of the first third of his remarks—but that’s a quibble.
Overall: Speaks about the American Experience and his own family history like an old pro, making him seem wise and thoughtful beyond his years. Continues to hit his stride, creating believers within the party and the press. When he leverages his youth to make his optimism seem more organic, he stakes a greater claim than Walker, Bush, and the rest of the field to being the right leader for a better future. Enshrined his place in the top tier more solidly than ever before.
Style: More conversational and comfortably biographical than usual. Engaged and engaging. Moved easily about the stage, gesturing as he spoke, with a wireless mic.
Substance: Denounced revenue-neutral tax reform, praised and explained economic freedom zones, celebrated the Bill of Rights. Crisply differentiated himself from his rivals on foreign policy without sounding dovish.
Best moment: Story of how and why he chose to shift from citizen-doctor to U.S. senator was told in a compelling and humanizing manner.
Worst moment: His explanation of Libya was a bit of a zigzag of a verbal walk in the park.
Overall: Strong showing, describing the liberty agenda of lower taxes, smaller government, and individual freedom in a very New Hampshire-friendly manner. Full-throated fidelity to his cause without fear or favor (praise for Barbara Boxer mixed with denunciation of Loretta Lynch), with a pox on partisanship and D.C. culture. Championed civil liberties with a passion rarely seen from any of the other candidates on any issue. The sustained standing ovation at the end of his remarks reflected a basic truth: If Paul can keep this performance level up, and his team can build a top-shelf turnout operation, he will be right in the hunt to win the primary.
Style: New and improved stump speech heavy on relaxed biography (including specifics about his wife and kids). A little unfocused at times and not as much red meat as some faithful would like, but pleasant and good natured from wire to wire. Joked about his tough path to the nomination in a manner both self aware and funny.
Substance: Flaunted his conservative record as Florida governor more than he talked about what he would do as president.
Best moment: Passionately defended his record as an educational reformer, implicitly taking the edge off of the omnipresent criticism of his support for Common Core standards, a sentiment that runs wide and deep in New Hampshire.
Worst moment: Occasionally rushed through his bullet points with self-conscious purpose.
Overall: After weak set piece speeches in Detroit and Chicago, he showed up in New Hampshire with a snappy stump speech that stood out in the growing field. Displayed a top-tier candidate’s range of knowledge, vision, and optimism, but not the swagger of the frontrunner. A high-stakes performance that will please the ears of those Granite State voters who are open to voting for him. But many still aren’t.
Style: Entered to a standing ovation and maintained the rousing energy. Typically muscular and self-assured when tugging at conservative heartstrings, mostly eschewing dog whistles for rat-tat-tat tomahawk missiles fired at political enemies foreign and domestic. On a few occasions, a tad unfocused and repetitive.
Substance: Still doesn’t appear to believe that a successful stump speech involves presenting a programmatic agenda for what he would do as president, even when asked for specifics during the Q&A.
Best moment: When he walked in and took over the room—as thoroughly as anyone has the whole weekend.
Worst moment: When discussing the tragic Fort Hood shooting in Texas, failed to place the event in context, slowing down his torrid pace a bit.
Overall: Unlikely to be as strong in New Hampshire as he will be in Iowa and South Carolina, but demonstrated again that he can shine in any crowded lineup and that his conservative message plays with the base, even in New England. No one else combines his rhetorical energy, conservative record, and take-no-prisoner approach, and the crowds love it. Missing Bush’s more traditional presidential demeanor, Kasich’s appeal to consensus, Paul’s emphasis on expanding the party, and Rubio’s policy ideas, but without a doubt a driven force to be reckoned with.
Style: Typically loosey-goosey, but with purpose. Aware that he needs to introduce himself to New Hampshire voters, and so went heavy on childhood bio and early career. Utilized the plainspoken idioms of a life steeped in reality. Got his share of laughs.
Substance: Made it clear he understands the issues bedeviling the country at home, but offered few specifics, and only skimmed over foreign policy.
Best moment: Sold his record in Ohio without bragging or short-changing his accomplishments, or their relevance to Washington—which is his core message.
Worst moment: His narrative about being chair of the House Budget Committee was an antiseptic, long-winded waste of time.
Overall: Having sized up the field, he’s decided there is a path to the nomination and the White House, long his goal. Trying to be thematic, he was at times labored and caught in the weeds. Low-key until the Q&A, when he acknowledged and described his struggle to decide whether or not to seek the White House. Should he get in the race, he starts from a good place as the governor of Ohio, possessed of a winning personality that wears well, and selling a top-tier message about bringing the country together. But he's not committed to run yet, and that held him back a bit.
Style: Relaxed combo of confidence and humility. Impressive energy level and verve after a long day of meetings, courting activists and college students. Unlike some speakers, understands how to deploy brief pauses and a thoughtful cadence. Bashed the Beltway with populist flair. His jabs at Hillary Clinton seemed more bitingly personal than necessary.
Substance: Talked at length about what he accomplished as governor, and the principles he would apply to the presidency, but didn’t translate those into specific policy ideas that would work in D.C. — until the Q&A, when he offered praise for Paul Ryan’s budget, spoke of block-granting Medicaid, and advocated an increase in defense spending.
Best moment: Crisply sold a version of the “Wisconsin Miracle” with talk of “big” and “bold” moves made as governor on the economy, taxes, education, the environment, ballot protection, and pro-life legislation, a narrative that impressed (but will be picked apart in the coming months, including by his GOP rivals).
Worst moment: His national security section still feels like a work in progress, too shrill and filled with rehearsed buzzwords and forced applause lines.
Overall: Because of a hotel wedding mix-up, Walker made his presentation in a room one-quarter the size used by all the other speakers. Still keeps the focus of the Wisconsin union-fight story on his personal experience rather than on presidential qualifications, and usually speaks in generalities. A man to watch, in New Hampshire and elsewhere, but he did not establish a clear hold on the state that prides itself on “picking presidents.”
Style: Has confidently settled into his new role as insouciant, determined underdog who is willing to take on Barack Obama, more in anger than in sorrow. Knows he is viewed as somewhat damaged goods by savvy New Hampshire voters, but seems to believe he can charm and (lightly) bully them into submission.
Substance: Talked fluidly about current state and federal policy, although still doesn’t have many specific proposals for what he would do as president. Dabbled briefly in national security.
Best moment: Pledged to be himself all the time and in every way, if elected president—Christie at his assured, tough-guy, colloquial best.
Worst moment: Long, sarcastic riff on the rhetorical crutch of opposition to government waste was not nearly as funny or engaging as he seemed to think.
Overall: Continued his newfound emphasis on entitlement changes to push his record of reform and image of truth teller. Plus: leader, leader, leader. Seems to have found a balance between confidence and brashness. Used his aplomb on the big stage to push his way closer to the top tier, but not a game-changing performance.
Style: In full Catskills mode, including the usual Hillary Clinton funnies. This makes him darn likeable, but it hampers his ability to come off as the candidate of strength.
Substance: Tough on Obama foreign policy and government spending, but still failed to offer even an outline of the detailed congressional plans he actually supports—let alone generate ideas specifically for the campaign.
Best moment: Affecting story about the death of his parents and his hardscrabble upbringing, told in an emotional and determined manner.
Worst moment: Teed up the challenge of entitlement spending, but then didn’t put himself forward in a compelling way as the best person to fix what’s broken.
Overall: Continues to convince people he is serious about running, that he’s more than just John McCain’s friend or Rand Paul’s foil. He’s clearly having great fun, enjoying the platform and the new role. Graham is the only one in the prospective field who is and will be nearly unassailable in the nomination fight when it comes to national security: an advantage he has yet to leverage fully. If he follows McCain’s advice on how to win New Hampshire and moves up in the polls, he will impact the race at least a little, and maybe a lot, more.
Style: Employed a hand mic and paced stroll around the stage. Started with pure, vivid bio, including mention of her time as a “Kelly Girl.” Talked with gravity about her daughter’s addiction. Toggled nicely between intense and conversational, as appropriate for each passage.
Substance: Rhetoric, storytelling jokes, and jibes at Hillary Clinton’s expense—but almost no real policy ideas.
Best moment: A well-crafted and strongly performed start of speech, commanding and human, grabbed the audience and locked them in.
Worst moment: Awkwardly stepped on her own signature line about Clinton’s travels and accomplishments by first reminding the audience that they had probably heard the joke before. (Note to Fiorina: Pols don’t do that—just ask John McCain!)
Overall: Her stump speech, strong at CPAC, has gotten even better. She has two of the three Holy Trinity elements of message: biography, and where the nation is currently positioned along the arc of the American Experience. What she’s missing is policy proposals. Still, an overall performance that is elevated by a heroic optimism. Poll numbers and fundraising remain question marks, but her consistency and quality of performance at multi-candidate events now seem pretty assured.
Style: Classic Trump.
Substance: Hit Obama administration foreign policy, the unemployment rate, China, career politicians, and Mexico, but skipped specific proposals in favor of boasts such as “I’ll bring jobs back.”
Best moment: Completely free of doubt in making the case he could beat Hillary Clinton.
Worst moment: Still telling the story of when Obama aide David Axelrod spurned his offer to build a new ballroom in the White House for $100 million, a tale that doesn’t have much to do with winning the hearts and minds of voters.
Overall: Confident (naturally), brash (of course) recitation of his go-to theme: America falling behind economically thanks to a lack of decisive leadership. Based on his recent poll standing and the difficulty he’s had convincing political and media elites he is serious about being a player in the race, Trump needs a new act to elevate his standing. Nevertheless, an audience favorite as always, encouraged to run by many, and working the Granite State grassroots harder than most realize.
Style: Kept a focus on family, with an uplifting recitation of his parents’ history and frequent references to his kids. Worked with purpose to be chatty, upbeat, and conversational. Might have veered too far in that direction, at the expense of presidential gravitas.
Substance: Flashed his education chops but spent most of his time storytelling and being critical of Hillary Clinton.
Best moment: After a few awkward jokes, he launched vibrant and strong, sending a clear signal that he was going to put on a solid show—of which he is fully capable—and not the low-wattage performance he sometimes delivers.
Worst moment: Failed to be Rubioesque in connecting his family story to policy proposals in a compelling manner.
Overall: He remains as intelligent and policy-impressive as anyone in the prospective field, but still isn’t giving activists a compelling, tangible reason to choose him over his rivals. Improved over some recent national appearances, but still looking to hit his stride and reach his potential.
Style: In fine Pataki form: fluid, energized (for him), and in good humor. Looked comfortable and demonstrated a good ear for what New Hampshire Republicans want to hear, based in part on his repeated visits to the state.
Substance: Showed off glib answers on a range of issues, but was more of a critiquer than a proposer, lacking specifics for what he would do as president.
Best moment: Delivered a denunciation of Common Core with perfect pitch for Granite State opposers.
Worst moment: Asked “wine or beer?” he chose “both ... beer during the day, wine at night.” (“Vote Pataki: He Drinks Beer During the Day”)
Overall: Chose to do audience and moderator Q. & A. instead of a stump speech—giving him a leg up on seeming like an accessible guy, but sacrificing some of the “looks like a president” energy of a rousing address. As the first ‘16er of the day, he benefitted from an engaged crowd, willing to give his tires a friendly kick. But if he is going to be taken seriously by the donors, voters, and media, he'll need more performances like this one—only even better.
Style: Smooth as the surface of a polished gem, and as slick as oil. Standard, if effectively delivered, jokes about crooked pols and rascal Clintons.
Substance: Homilies, wise cracks, and inspirational rhetoric, but not a whole lot of policy ideas.
Best moment: Argued that his Hope, Arkansas upbringing makes him the most battle-tested contender to take on the Clinton political machine.
Worst moment: Some of the jokes fell fully flat.
Overall: Still transitioning back to the mode of hard-charging presidential candidate from the mellower tone he took as TV and radio personality and paid speaker. Needs to goose his poll numbers in order to return to the center of the conversation and raise money. Like some of his rivals, he must elevate his game on the issues of the day (including national security and Washington gridlock) or be dismissed as yesterday’s news. Too much same old same old, and an over-reliance on the Clinton meme, despite his charm, smarts, and wiles. Underrated as an Iowa force, but, as of now, not as a New Hampshire one.
Style: Continues to quietly improve as a stump speaker, with a pleasing cadence and accessible narrative weave, even when talking about the planet’s most dangerous hot spots. Still, more a seminar than a pep rally—albeit an interesting seminar.
Substance: Offered his typical critique of everything wrong with the Obama foreign policy and with the world (and the connections he sees between the two …), but almost nothing prescriptive.
Best moment: Thoughtfully made the case for the importance of national security credentials in picking a presidential nominee and a commander-in-chief.
Worst moment: Consistent to a fault.
Overall: Wants to be part of the national security debate and earns enough respect to reach that goal. But a lack of rousing rhetoric, positive vision, or domestic policy chops makes him a horse of a different color on a program filled with ambitious would-be presidents.
Style: Likable, chatty, and dignified. As he does in every public appearance, he let Peter King be Peter King (which has an everyman upside, but is more Long Island congressman than worldly POTUS).
Substance: Rang the alarm on national security and the current administration’s alleged absence of serious policies, but wasn’t specific about any of his own ideas.
Best moment: Gritty, lowfalutin call to arms against America’s foes around the world in the wake of 9/11 and other attacks.
Worst moment: Challenged by an audience member on his past criticism of fellow Republicans, he gave an answer that was as awkward and rambling as the question.
Overall: In a less crowded and top-heavy field, he would have a better chance of breaking through, yet clearly sees an opening via his own foreign policy bona fides. But a strong resume and gruffly winning personality will only carry him so far; a signature issue or two would help.
Style: Populist, anti-Washington message delivered in an intense but sometimes rambling manner. Not particularly funny, accessible, or soothing, despite nods toward optimism. On occasion let loose the manic arm-waving that he made infamous in the Granite State last cycle.
Substance: Advocated corporate tax reform, talked energy policy, but stubbornly remained above 30,000 feet.
Best moment: Talked about President Obama and the Mexican border in a crowd-pleasing, Texas-tough way.
Worst moment: Wordy, dark description of the recent American past that meandered and stalled out without much audience reaction.
Overall: Strong, mainline, conservative message, but delivered with flashes of his more lampoonable style—not the cup of tea of voters who continue to see and hear echoes of ‘12. Despite his many strengths, this version of Rick Perry cannot win the Republican nomination, and every time he acts like this at a high-profile event, he wastes more than an opportunity: He digs a deep hole even deeper.
Style: Talked rapidly, sometimes shouting, perhaps in an effort to seem forceful and driven. Showed little humor (beyond an opening clunker of a Clinton/e-mail joke), and little finesse. Occasionally hugged the side of the lectern, or wandered briefly away, only to return moments later.
Substance: Called for lower individual and corporate tax rates; elimination of the inheritance tax. Offered only generalities during an extended foreign policy section.
Best moment: Brought determination to his presentation, but no moments stood out.
Worst moment: The starkness of the line “President Obama doesn’t believe in America” turned into a downer even with a partisan audience that has little love for the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Overall: Largely unknown, even to many activists and the press; got some attention simply by being on the card. But didn’t give people a true sense of his heart, his history, or his hopes. Too dark and negative to be considered a happy Gilmore. Still, enough buzz in the room to likely encourage him to stay at it in the months ahead.