On the trail: Trump-DeSantis split-screen moment in N.H.

By PAUL STEINHAUSER

For the Monitor

Published: 06-25-2023 12:42 PM

New Hampshire will once again be center stage next week in 2024 campaign politics as the top two contenders for the GOP nomination will hold dueling events in the state that’s long held the first primary and second overall contest in the Republican nominating calendar.

The campaign of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida announced this week that the conservative firebrand and anti-woke warrior will hold a town hall in Hollis on Tuesday morning. It’s DeSantis’ second trip to New Hampshire since declaring his candidacy in late May.

Tuesday is the same day ex-president Donald Trump is scheduled to be in New Hampshire to keynote the Federation of Republican Women’s annual Lilac Luncheon, which this year is being held at the Grappone Center in Concord.

The event, which has been held for eight decades, is the group’s largest annual fundraiser. The event, which in the past has attracted former Presidents Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, was headlined last year by former Vice President Mike Pence, who last month also jumped into the 2024 GOP nomination race.

Trump, who in November launched his third straight White House campaign, is the commanding front-runner in the latest national and New Hampshire public opinion polls in the GOP nomination race.

DeSantis is a clear second in most surveys, trailing Trump but ahead of the rest of the field of Republican presidential contenders, who are polling in the single digits.

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One of those candidates – former ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who declared her candidacy in February – will also be campaigning in New Hampshire next Tuesday when Trump and DeSantis are in the state.

“This is a quintessential New Hampshire moment. This is when individuals across the state have that chance to potentially hear different candidates on the same day,” veteran New Hampshire conservative activist Greg Moore told Fox News. The longtime New Hampshire state director for the influential conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity noted that this is a “key moment when we have the current two top contenders for the Republican primary visiting in New Hampshire.”

Pointing to the Granite State’s strong tradition of retail-style politics, Moore said “it’s important for President Trump not to simply hold rallies with thousands of people, where he doesn’t necessarily interact directly with the voters.” As for Florida’s governor, Moore noted that “Gov. DeSantis also has to start building out his brand in New Hampshire.”

The New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women (NHFRW) was apparently not very pleased with the DeSantis announcement that he would be holding an event in the state two hours ahead of their annual fundraising gala.

Two days after announcing that the Trump-headlined Lilac Luncheon would be record-selling sell-out, the NHFRW took the rare step of criticizing a Republican candidate, as they released a statement expressing “their disappointment with the DeSantis campaign” for scheduling a town hall “in opposition to their historic Lilac Luncheon.”

“The Lilac Luncheon is the preeminent fundraiser of the largest grassroots Republican women’s organization in the state,” the group said in a statement. “This attempt to pull focus from our Lilac Luncheon only diminishes the efforts of the Republican women in New Hampshire.”

The statement sparked controversy, with two NHFRW members resigning in protest and plenty of pushback on social media.

State GOP chair Chris Ager emphasized in a statement that “the New Hampshire Republican Party welcomes all Presidential candidates to speak to whomever they want, whenever and wherever they see fit.”

Chris Christie’s mission

Former two-term New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who two weeks ago launched his second Republican run for the White House, is clearly advertising his 2024 mission.

“I am going to be the alternative to Donald Trump,” Christie told this reporter on Thursday. “I’m going to be the person that people look at and say he’s the only one drawing a distinction between himself and Donald Trump. I am going to be the alternative to Donald Trump, and when I am, I’m going to beat him.”

Christie, who declared his candidacy for president in New Hampshire, returned this week as he concentrates his campaign firepower in the Granite State.

The former governor, who long ago mastered the art of retail politics, has seen his poll numbers in national and New Hampshire surveys inch up since he entered the race. Asked how he can expand his support, Christie said, “(You) come up here, and you campaign.”

“You know, look, people get to know me, I usually do pretty well,” he emphasized.

Eight years ago, Christie placed all his chips in New Hampshire as he ran for the 2016 Republican nomination. But his campaign crashed and burned after a disappointing and distant sixth-place finish in first-in-the-nation primary, far behind Trump, who crushed the competition in the primary on his way to secure the GOP nomination and eventually the White House.

Christie became the first among the other GOP 2016 contenders to endorse Trump, and for years he was a top outside adviser to the then-president, even chairing Trump’s high-profile commission on opioids. However, the two had a falling-out after Trump’s unsuccessful attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden. For the past two years, Christie has become one of the most vocal Trump critics in the GOP.

The former governor pointed to his vocal critiques of Trump and argued that “I’m saying what’s on a lot of people’s minds, that none of the other candidates are saying. And it needs to be said.”

Christie isn’t the only Republican presidential candidate who’s been vocal in their criticism of the former president. Former two-term Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman, top official in then-President George W. Bush’s administration and a former federal prosecutor, has long been an outspoken Republican Trump critic. Another is one-time CIA spy turned former GOP Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, who declared his candidacy on Thursday, as the field of contenders grew to over a dozen.

Christie, who was interviewed during a stop at Manchester’s iconic Red Arrow Diner, said, “I wish Will and Asa luck. Not too much luck, but some.”

He argued that “the attention I’m getting because of the way I’m saying things is different than Asa, who’s been in the race for three months and hasn’t got that kind of attention from the voters or from the media and quite frankly not quite the kind of attention that I think Will will probably get as well.”

Hutchinson, who stopped by the Red Arrow Diner about an hour after Christie departed, disagreed, telling this reporter, “We’ll see. Every voice is important in this race.”

But Hutchinson acknowledged that he, Christie and Hurd would “probably” divide the anti-Trump vote.

He said that when he declared his candidacy, “I didn’t expect to have 12 candidates in the race.”

“We’ve got to go through this period of self-evaluation, that if our message doesn’t resonate and we’re stepping on each other’s toes, then we need to say who can be the leader, and we need to make sure that we reduce those numbers as we get closer to 2024.”

But he added, “I don’t think people need to be dropping out before we actually have votes cast,” as he pointed to start of the nominating calendar early next year.

The Red Arrow Diner – which has long been a must-stop for White House hopefuls visiting New Hampshire – saw even more campaign traffic on Friday as former nationally syndicated conservative talk show host Larry Elder, a former California gubernatorial candidate, greeted customers at the eatery.

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