Candidates Descend for First in the Nation Summit

Marco Rubio was among the candidates who stopped by Nashua for the February 9 summit.

Marco Rubio was among the candidates who stopped by Nashua for the February 9 summit.

At 6 AM on a Saturday morning, three tired members of The Review and two companions wearily awoke. They then proceeded to drive two hours to Nashua. What could so motivate these Dartmouth students? The New Hampshire Republican Party’s First in The Nation Presidential Town Hall (FITN). The event gathered every major candidate for the state’s Republican primary on February 9, providing an engaging showcase of the GOP’s views. The three-day convention began with a dinner with former Vice President Dick Cheney ton Friday. The main event started Saturday morning with an introduction by sitting New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, expertly framing key issues such as security, while also stumping for her election this fall. She was followed by Senator Marco Rubio, former governor Jeb Bush, former Senator Rick Santorum, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Senator Rand Paul. After the morning session ended, there was an inspiring lunch featuring Kentucky Governor Matthew Bevin. After reconvening in the afternoon, the town hall quickly began to slow, beginning with a weak showing by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. The quality of the speakers continued to degrade, with Governor Jim Gilmore whining about his exclusion from mainstream discussion, and interest groups blatantly marketing their causes. We’ve collected some highlights from the various remarks.

John Kasich 

Governor Kasich took a notably different tone than the other candidates, focusing on his character and history rather than openly addressing policy topics. He began by invoking Ronald Reagan and his numerous achievements, lauding the fall of the Berlin Wall. He then touched on his own experiences with Reagan, highlighting his 1982 electoral win as the only Republican victory over an incumbent Democrat that year. While speaking of his experiences working with Reagan, he stressed the bipartisan nature of politics back then, and the need to reach across the aisle to enact good policy. This tone was notably different from the confrontational approach of many other candidates towards party relations.

Afterwards, Kasich transitioned into a call for more localized government, lauding the effectiveness of communities in solving community issues and asserting that he would “run the country from the bottom-up.” He then proceeded to name his successes as the Governor of Ohio, highlighting the creation of 400,000 jobs under his tenure. With wages rising faster than the nation average and several new budget-neutral tax cuts, Kasich certainly has a resume worthy of consideration.

Governor Kasich, like Senator Paul, also attempted to reach-out to groups not traditionally associated with Republican politics, stressing the need to help the drug-addicted and low-income communities. He spoke of not simply cutting welfare, but of using innovative methods to reduce welfare spending while still helping vulnerable members of society.  Kasich highlighted his centralization of welfare services within cohesive community centers, making them more accessible for Ohioans. Kasich continued with this theme in discussing education policy, illustrating his mission for Ohio schools to prepare students for the “jobs of the future.” Examples of his policies include the expansion of vocational education and internships, and greater engagement with business owners for low-income students.

In his conclusion, the Governor returned to his opening message of unity, stressing the importance of building a good team – one that could effectively address the problems America faces today. He reminded attendees that “before they were Republicans or Democrats, they were citizens.” He reflected on the success he and Reagan had in working with Democrats to actually pass conservative policies rather than simply speak about them. For instance, he explained how he had worked with Democratic Representative Tim Penny to promote an across-the-board reduction in federal spending, which was narrowly defeated. Although it was interesting he used an unsuccessful attempt to prove his point, he did have a point. Kasich also tied himself to other bipartisan conservative figures such as Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney, cementing his affiliation with the moderate wing of the Republican Party. Despite his claim of being a “Washington outsider,” he is certainly no Maverick. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing given Congress’ dismal performance in recent years. It would be nice to have a leader capable of making the gears turn. Such is the promise Kasich gives us, claiming he will “make the trek to Washington not to engage in warfare, but to engage in solutions.” With the most divided electorate in history, it remains to be seen whether Republican voters will listen to such overtures.

 Jeb Bush

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush started off with a joke about how the background posters of the stage showcased conservative leaders, including some of the Bush clan: “Hey, dad. Hey, W.” Immediately after, Bush launched into a subtle attack on Trump and his supporters, discussing how he’s enjoyed campaigning in New Hampshire because its people “are not latched onto the big personalities on the stage.” Rather, “They are interested in someone’s view about how we will protect and serve Social Security. How we will create an environment where people’s lives can get better. How we can keep America safer, stronger, and freer.” Bush then shared an anecdote of how he went down to the Citadel in South Carolina to make a speech and meet with a group of elite students there, and how he attempted to practice with them. Bush was asked about what America’s role in the future is, if he will support the troops, and are we going to get back in “the game”. His answer: “I will be a Commander-in-Chief that will back up our troops. I’m proud of the fact that I have eleven Medal of Honor recipients supporting me. I’m proud that 30 generals and admirals are supporting my campaign because they know that we need a Commander-in-Chief that will restore the role of America in the world.”

Bush claims we need to expand our Army back to 490,000 troops, “not the 420,000 we’re moving toward, because we won’t be able to project force onto the world.” Bush ridiculed Obama’s military policy of “leading from behind,” claiming that “to make a more secure and peaceful world, we have to rebuild our military, so that we don’t have to use it.” With regard to Syria, Bush wants American troops embedded in the Iraqi military, the creation of multiple safe zones in Syria, and a no-fly zone. Jeb advocates the need for a Sunni-led force financed by Saudi Arabia, with America using its air superiority to support them. “ISIS has declared war on us, we need to declare war on them.”

Bush goes on to advocate a national line-item veto, citing his extensive use of it as Governor of Florida to cut out wasteful spending, claiming, “They called me ‘Veto Corleone’.” He calls for a six-year lobbying ban for retired Congressmen, complaining of the revolving door on K Street. Bush mentions that take-home income has dropped by $2,300 during Obama’s Presidency, and derides the current state of the Veterans Affairs system. Bush said he will allow veterans to go to private providers for healthcare once he becomes President. Jeb then pivoted to the frontrunner in the Republican race, who he claims “is not a conservative.”

Governor Bush, of course, is talking about Donald Trump, who Bush claims has given money to Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as the Clinton Foundation. Bush claimed that Trump said Hillary would make a great negotiator, and that he supported a 14.5% tax on the assets of Americans a few years back. Bush closed off his speech by saying “It is not strong to insult women; it is not a sign of strength when you insult Hispanics; it is not a sign of strength when you say a POW is a loser if they got caught—John McCain was a hero—it is not a sign of strength disparaging the disabled in this country, it is not—it is a sign of deep insecurity and weakness”, and then asking the good people of New Hampshire for their vote.

Rand Paul

“A government that takes half your pay does not leave you free. A government that sifts through your personal records does not leave you free.” This came in Rand Paul’s booming voice from his New Hampshire “Live Free or Die” campaign ad that played before he came on stage. “I come to New Hampshire to announce that I will fight for your rights. I will fight to keep the federal government out of New Hampshire, out of your home, out of your business. I will fight to allow you to be wholly free.” Sen. Paul, beginning his speech, focused on his main concept of freedom, saying “I want a government so small you can barely see it. I want government to do what it’s supposed to do according to the Constitution.” Rand said that the problem with Republicans who claim they are fiscal conservatives is that “all Republicans vote for a balanced budget amendment, but only a third vote for an actual balanced budget when it comes up.” In fact, “The loudest voices for increasing federal funding right now are Republicans.” Rand said that Republicans are demanding more military spending, and believes that the only way they can do that is if they concede additional domestic spending—“It’s what I call The Unholy Alliance.”

“I believe in a strong national defense, but you’re not stronger than bankruptcy court,” Rand stated boldly. Rand says that many in government complained about the sequester and how it was hollowing out the military, yet the “sequester was a slowdown in the rate of spending, not a spending cut.” Rand recalled that the Republican leadership worked with Democrats to get rid of the sequester, and that he was part of the Tea Party movement. Rand asks if it is really a good thing to keep something open that borrows over a million dollars a minute.

Shifting to foreign policy, he asks if we really want a commander-in-chief who would “punch Russia in the nose, shoot down Russian planes, or refuse to talk to Putin?” Rand asks us to “think about the greatest commander in chiefs of the past”: “Reagan talked to Gorbachev, he always kept a line of communication open.” Rand then says he’s worried how the majority of New Hampshire Democrats supporting Bernie Sanders support socialism and thinking that it’s such a great idea, mentioning, “Did they not learn from history? Socialism is an abysmal failure, we won the Cold War because the engine of capitalism beat the engine of socialism.”

Rand complained that California is using the Supreme Court’s infamous Kelo decision on eminent domain to take property from churches and turn it over to retailers because they don’t generate enough property taxes, and then claims that Trump supports this. Rand said, “The Constitution was written to restrain the government. The Framers wanted to limit power of the Presidency.” Rand then proclaimed that “if I am president we will not go to war without a declaration of war from Congress.”

Rand pivoted back to privacy, stating that the Fourth Amendment was written to prevent generalized warrants, and that we need to prevent terrorism but we can’t invade the privacy of American citizens without probable cause.

Sen. Paul then brought up an interesting topic from the penultimate debate (prior to the Iowa caucus)—is regime change good? “Has it ever been a good idea? Look at Libya, we toppled Qadaffi, now we have one third of Libya pledging loyalty to ISIS.”

“I think we need a sensible foreign policy, we need to balance our budget, that we have to put our books in order, and I’ll do it,” said Rand as he eloquently concluded his pitch to New Hampshire voters to give him his vote.

Marco Rubio

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida demonstrated how he is currently polling more than double that of the rest of the present candidates (RCP aggregate 11 percent, currently third place). His speech opened with remarks regarding President Obama’s infamous pen being frozen by the winter storm in Washington. Unfortunately, he also insisted on offering the all-too-typical football sellout, proclaiming his hopes for a New England Patriot victory over the Denver Broncos that weekend (much to the chagrin of the Seattle and Indianapolis fans also in attendance).

Following up his all-important opening appeal to humor was a standard display from the young Senator — performed impressively as usual. He continued his relentless barrage on the disconnect between Washington and the average American, in addition to the current administration’s executive order and second amendment policies. In fact, one of his biggest applause lines came from his pledge to immediately appeal all unconstitutional executive orders issued by President Obama. He continued with a plethora of “first day pledges,” including eliminating inhibitory EPA regulations, national Common Core requirements, the recent international deal with Iran, and, of course, Obamacare.

Furthermore, Rubio drew heavily from his personal experience, particularly with regards to immigration. He stressed his closeness to the issue stemming from his entire family’s relatively recent experiences with immigration to the US. The priority, per Senator Rubio, has become “keeping ISIS out of America… If we do not know who you are, a hundred percent for sure, and we do not know why you are coming, for a hundred percent certainty… you will not get into the United States of America.” He also stressed the importance of securing the borders, an action he deems to be not in the least bit xenophobic. Such an action would be accomplished through border agent increases, fencing and barriers, and improved computer tracking systems such as E-Verify; his strong position against amnesty has also not wavered.

The Senator also spoke regarding his foreign policy, consisting of a strong resistance to the world’s biggest threats, including North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, and ISIS. He lobbied strongly for increased defense and military spending, going as far as to claim that “the world is a safer and better place when we are the strongest military in the world.” His speech ended with attacks on the Democratic Party candidates, citing Bernie Sanders as “a perfect candidate for Norway” and Hillary Clinton’s disqualification due to her security issues and handling of the Benghazi attacks.

Rubio fielded a number of questions dealing with topics ranging from tax policy to African poverty. His biggest blunder, however, came with his final question posed by an eleven-year-old girl. She asked what he believed to be the most pressing issue facing the country today. Instead of focusing on a specific issue, as the girl seemed to be aiming for, he digressed into discussing his desire for America to be passed on as a nation better off than it was when his generation inherited it. While still an impressive display, his answer ultimately failed to address the core of the question; especially having been posed by a child, such a response might reflect even more poorly upon the Senator. Regardless, his general performance was perhaps the strongest of the day, and should help him carry some momentum heading into the upcoming Iowa caucuses.

Carly Fiorina

Ms. Fiorina’s current polling numbers (2.2 percent RCP aggregate) paint her odds for the nomination as slim to non;, however, the former HP CEO continues to fight for her position in the race going forward. She began with an opening metaphor comparing political coverage to sports because the system “has become a game,” also slamming Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in connection with career politicians and crony capitalism. Her desire to run stems from her desire to “challenge the system” (albeit with a complete opposite viewpoint to the other anti-establishment candidate, Bernie Sanders) and its failure to serve the needs of the American people in general. Fiorina desires change, she claims, as “they promise us much and deliver us little… Citizens, we must take our country back.”

She placed quite a bit of focus on her so-called blueprint for the future, a plan that outlines her desires for change that would come with her presidency. Along those lines, she proclaimed her determination to debate Hillary Clinton, a task she would take on confidently and successfully. Ultimately, however, her presentation carried the appearance typical of one struggling in the polls, complete with sweeping claims and promises in an attempt to gather votes. Her thoughts on leadership would have served her well as a motivational speaker, though not so much as a candidate. Her Town Hall answers were similarly tangential, meandering around before reaching – or, often, failing to reach – an answer. Of note was her answer to a veteran inquiring about the use of militaristic police tactics on black communities, which diverged into a discussion on veterans’ benefits. Other questions focused heavily on women’s health issues and Planned Parenthood.

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Our Primary Predictions

Since July, Donald J. Trump has consistently led the polls in New Hampshire, typically by double digits. With such a large material lead, Trump winning the New Hampshire primary now seems like a foregone conclusion (though anything can happen). More interesting is the jockeying for second place among all the other candidates, with fits and starts for each. Ben Carson had his moment in the spotlight, as did Carly Fiorina. Now heading into the primary, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie look like the candidates who could credibly finish second in this chaotic primary season. Each contender polls within a few points of the others, and each has reasons to be hopeful.

Christie was boosted by an endorsement from the New Hampshire Union Leader, the most influential conservative newspaper in the state. Kasich seems to be enjoying some late momentum, and Rubio is coming off of yet another strong debate performance. Then there is Bush’s diminished but still formidable super PAC, Right to Right USA, which has the power to drown the aforementioned candidates with attack ads.

Meanwhile, Cruz enjoys an overall stronger standing in national polls as well as the largest amount of hard money on hand. In addition, he is benefitting from the fact that the four establishment candidates—Kasich, Bush, Rubio, and Christie—are relentlessly attacking each other through large ad buys and on the campaign trail in what the media has described as a “circular firing squad.”

Each candidate has substantive weaknesses on policy. Kasich expanded Medicaid in Ohio under Obamacare through executive order against the will of the Republican legislature. The Gang of Eight bill championed by Rubio remains a sore point in his otherwise sterling conservative record. Christie’s insufficient conservatism on issues such as gun control could cause problems. Cruz has been under attack for being calculating rather than principled on issues such as immigration as well as for his undisclosed Goldman Sachs and Citibank loans, which he attributes to a paperwork error. And Bush, of course, faces headwinds over his support for Common Core and amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Furthermore, each candidate faces general and strategic challenges. Cruz’s strident Christian conservatism seems to be a poor fit for a secular state with many independents. Rubio has been unable to translate his strong debate performances into momentum in any particular state. Bush remains deeply unpopular among Republicans and in general. Christie is struggling to break through and seems to be fading in the polls at the worst possible moment. And Kasich was endorsed by The New York Times—which might as well be the kiss of death for a candidate already perceived as too moderate.

There are other dynamics at play here as well. Kasich, Bush, and Christie have effectively staked their entire campaigns on a strong finish in the Live Free or Die State, pouring an outsized amount of their resources into New Hampshire. Rubio, on the other hand, is less dependent on any particular state, though a poor performance would nonetheless be extremely damaging. Needless to say, not every one of these candidates can do well, meaning that the field will winnow significantly after New Hampshire. Rand Paul will probably call it quits as well.

In general, out of the four establishment candidates, Rubio is seen as best prepared to win the nomination were he to perform well in New Hampshire. He is strongest in national polls, has exemplary political skills, and has the money to go the distance, although the strength of his organization is still a question mark. Christie and Kasich—especially Kasich—would have trouble translating the momentum from a strong New Hampshire performance into further victories, considering that they both lack significant organization anywhere else in the country. (While both Christie and Kasich have a moderate profile, Kasich faces an additional challenge in that he has antagonized conservatives in an attempt to court independents in New Hampshire.) Bush, while having the money and organization, would also face a steep climb considering his popularity problem.

On the other hand, a second-place Cruz finish would turn the GOP nominating contest into a two-man battle between Trump and Cruz even more than it already has been. But regardless of his performance in New Hampshire, it looks like Cruz will stick it out through at least March 1, the so-called “SEC primary” that consists of many Cruz-friendly states.

After examining this turbulent and surprising election cycle, it is important to keep one thing in mind. New Hampshire voters are notorious for making up their minds on the day of the primary, so anything could happen.