For Republicans running for president — or eyeing it — this weekend was a big opportunity.
GOP presidential hopefuls from Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz to Carly Fiorina to Donald Trump descended on New Hampshire this weekend. The 19 candidates, and potential candidates, gathered in Nashua, N.H., for an event sponsored by the state Republican Party. They wooed activists and jockeyed for early position in the state that holds the first presidential primary.
And with the 2016 field lacking a clear frontrunner, there were plenty of conservative GOP voters, like Lisa Mediano, eager to make clear they are in no hurry to anoint one.
“I don’t want a coronation on our side, by any stretch of the imagination,” she says.
Mediano’s words were directed at Jeb Bush right after he finished his speech. The former Florida governor replied he isn’t expecting a coronation.
“Come on, what are you seeing that I’m not seeing?” Bush says. “We got 95 people possibly running for president. I’m really intimidating a whole bunch of folks, aren’t I?”
Everyone laughed, but many in the room also know a strong finish in New Hampshire is important for Bush. And he’s not the only one. If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is to climb back up in the polls, New Hampshire will likely be crucial. As he arrived in Nashua, Christie was quick to talk up his local ties.
“I love this state,” Christie says. “I’ve spent a lot of time, as you know, here in ’11 and ’12 for Gov. Romney, and then in ’14, so it’s easy to be back.”
Rand Paul — one of the three declared candidates — was more direct about what role New Hampshire and its activists need to play for him. He says New Hampshire is a must win.
The Kentucky senator won a standing ovation when he said Hillary Clinton’s handling of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, should disqualify her from holding any office. But Paul also took aim at the GOP for not pitching small government to every voter, everywhere.
“We need to talk to rich, poor, white, black, brown,” Paul says. “We’ve got to get out there and go places we haven’t been going.”
But before any reaching out, these candidates will mainly be putting the arm on typical primary voters. When doing that, a fresh record backing conservative causes helps. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ticked through a list of accomplishments, including limiting the power of unions, cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, relaxing gun policies and requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls.
“We decided to go big and go bold,” Walker says. “We didn’t hold back. We said it’s put up or shut up time.”
Top local Republicans see the race for 2016 as completely up for grabs.
“If you’re saying to me, is this as open and as fluid and as available as I’ve ever seen it? By far,” says Tom Rath, a former Republican National Committee member who’s advised numerous presidential candidates. “I can’t even remember anything that’s close.”
For party regulars and candidates alike, the next 10 months could be a long, winnowing process. Timothy Twombly, a local state representative, says he doesn’t have a clue who might win his support.
“I’m kind of thinking that the person that I want has got to have been in an executive position,” Twombly says. “So the people that I’m really looking at are the governors.”
This narrows things down a bit. After all, only nine governors or former governors spoke in Nashua this weekend.