Just seven weeks before the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary, establishment Republican candidates find themselves on the cusp of losing a stronghold of flinty Yankee pragmatism—and last best path to the White House—to a billionaire celebrity and a tea party senator from Texas.
Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Jeb Bush (formerly) of Florida were supposed to prove their political clout in the Granite State. No Republican in the modern primary era since the 1970s has won the nomination without taking Iowa or New Hampshire, and the three have staked their campaigns on the state where the Republican electorate, relatively centrist compared to Iowa and South Carolina, has successfully selected the past two Republican nominees.
So far, the pieces do not appear to be falling into place for anti-Trump Republicans.
"It's like they're the three governors who can't be heard. Donald Trump is drowning them all out," said Joan Griffin, an undecided voter from Portsmouth, New Hampshire who attended a Kasich town hall earlier this week.
A recent CBS poll gave Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, 13 percent in New Hampshire. Christie, Kasich and Bush were close behind, with 11, 8 and 6 percent, respectively. Added together, these establishment-backed candidates' 38 percent would beat Trump's 32 percent. But that's assuming all of their supporters rallied behind a single candidate. Instead, Trump's popularity and the establishment candidates' division has opened up an unusual opening for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a tea party favorite who favors a social agenda that would roll back gay rights and abortion rights. In New Hampshire, Cruz is second place behind Trump with 14 percent.
New Hampshire was supposed to be the state where the party establishment reasserted itself against not only Trump but the party's tea party and evangelical wings. Now supporters of each of the candidates are wondering if the establishment candidates risk splitting the independent, moderate vote that united would likely defeat Trump. "That could be a problem," said Renee Plummer, a Portsmouth-based GOP activist, who endorsed Christie after winnowing her short list to the three governors.
Much recent buzz in the state is about Christie, who recently won the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union-Leader, and has doubled his support from 5 percent to 11 percent over a month in the CBS poll.
"You are the most important people in America right now," Christie told a crowd at a campaign stop Saturday in Exeter, where numerous attendees cited national security as a top concern. "This country is in danger and we need a president who'll protect the American people," Christie said, channeling their concerns. He also needled Trump, though not by name, saying, "We're not picking an entertainer-in-chief. We're not casting a TV show. This is real."
Sprawled across Christie's campaign bus is the slogan "Telling It Like It Is," reminiscent of John McCain's 2008 slogan "Straight Talk Express." Their arcs have parallels, too.
McCain's campaign collapsed the summer before the primary, but he put all his chips in New Hampshire and went on to win the state and the nomination. Christie is hoping for a similar comeback. "You've seen this happen time and time again in presidential politics. What happens in Iowa and New Hampshire helps to reconfigure the race and determine what's going to happen," Christie told ABC's This Week on Sunday.
Trump's dominance has political watchers wondering if an establishment candidate can gain sufficient traction even by winning New Hampshire. None are particularly well-organized or have shown strong appeal outside there.
"[Christie] could win New Hampshire, but then what? Compared with McCain 2008, he has a weaker long game and a stronger field of opponents," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
The establishment's nightmare scenario is that the center-right vote splits and gifts Trump the Granite State, leaving them with no traction and no alternative as the nomination contest moves to South Carolina, Nevada and a swath of southern states.
That may help explain why Rubio currently stands atop the establishment pack. The senator, who also got tea party support, is widely seen as the Republican with the greatest potential crossover appeal, able to impress both the party establishment (he has won the support of wealthy donors such as Paul Singer and Larry Nichols) and more conservative voters. Facing a perception among some voters there that he doesn't spend enough time in the Granite State, he sought to correct that this week with a series of stops over three days from Rochester to Berlin, a remote town in the northern part of the state, selling his vision of a "new American century."
But Christie supporter Bill Dunham, 68, of Brentwood, N.H., is down on Rubio. "I'm never going to forget the time he walked into a room with Chuck Schumer and came out supporting amnesty. Never gonna forget it," Dunham said. His second choice is Cruz, he said. Like some Republicans, Dunham sees Christie as having Trump's pugnacity without his tendency to give offense. "I lived in New Jersey for a while so I'm used to his bombast, which I really kinda love," Dunham said of Christie.
In interviews, some New Hampshire voters expressed frustration with Trump, who will hold a rally in New Hampshire on Monday.
"A real pain in the ass. Can you print that?" griped Ruth Griffin, a local GOP activist who backs Kasich, after a rally.
"Mr. Trump is rude and crude—and that's putting it mildly," said Jody Horne, an 85-year-old retired teacher who is supporting Kasich. "He's an absolute fool."
"Look, I like that Trump got people thinking. But he's got too much baggage," said Lloyd Graves, of North Hampton. "There's just too many candidates right now."
At a town hall Sunday, Kasich reflected on the unusually ugly primary contest, and had his own veiled jabs at Trump. "This is not that hard," he told the crowd. "It's the politics that's hard... I'm not into loud statements. I'm not into banging my fists on a table. I'm not into dividing and name calling... I'm into leading. The yelling only goes so far."
Bush took more direct aim at Trump during a campaign event in upstate New Hampshire. He slammed Trump's proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S. "I promise, I won't talk about Trump again," he said.
Less than two minutes later, he couldn't help himself. "This is why this love affair with Donald Trump—wait, I just said I wasn't gonna," he said, catching himself. But after addressing the estimated 50 people at the town hall, Bush slammed Trump again to reporters. He said that Trump's recent crude attacks on Clinton would help the Democratic front-runner.
But even some who don't support Trump acknowledged his staying power.
"There are people who’ve never, ever voted that are going to vote now. He’s done something. He’s stirred up the hornet’s nest. And he's stirred up the United States," said Plummer, the New Hampshire activist. "And I don’t blame him. This guy just stood up in front of 10 people and said, 'I want to be president.' Then he stood up in front of 100 people, then 1,000, then 10,000. And they responded. He is telling Washington, 'I'm mad as hell and we're going to change a few things.'"