“All the people at the bottom of the totem pole should get out, because it’s making it hard for voters,” said Rosalie Thomas, an undecided GOP voter attending Rubio’s town hall in her hometown of Berlin. She said she was “leaning in his direction” before the event.
Rubio has the most at stake in the state’s primary. His campaign is hoping that New Hampshire voters anoint him as the clear establishment favorite, providing a signal to his like-minded rivals to drop out and consolidate behind him. But Rubio hasn’t yet pulled away from the competition in state polls, and despite the national buzz, hasn’t spent nearly as much time campaigning in New Hampshire as Christie, Bush, and Kasich. According to National Journal’s Travel Tracker, Rubio has spent only 20 days in the state since the beginning of the year, compared to Christie’s 57 days and Bush’s 37.
Rubio, sensitive to criticism that he’s been outworked, lavished the state’s blue-collar “north country” with attention in a three-day campaign swing with his family before the holidays. He spent nearly two hours answering questions at every town hall, waiting until the last attendee left before departing. After a staffer at Monday’s event signaled for the last question, Rubio interrupted. “I’m not leaving here. I’ll be around taking everyone’s question and to say hello.”
Cliff Hurst, Rubio’s New Hampshire cochairman, acknowledged that the senator from Florida had a lighter state campaign schedule than most of the other candidates, but said he would be retraining his focus on the state in January, when voters play the closest attention. “Rubio had to raise enough money and get things in place so he wouldn’t be dropping out after he came here, like some others,” said Hurst, who previously worked for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaign.
The risk for Rubio is that by running a more national campaign, he ends up ceding ground to the candidates who have put all their chips on winning New Hampshire. That applies especially to the feisty Christie, who has been creeping upwards in state polls and cultivates a much more freewheeling approach at his town halls than the more on-message Rubio.
After an attendee at a VFW town hall in Pelham insisted that former President Bush waged war in Iraq only for oil, Christie fired back: “I fundamentally, profoundly disagree with the premise of your question,” to unanimous applause. He strongly defended the rights of police departments to maintain military-style equipment, saying that President Obama is “a joke on these law-and-order issues.” After someone criticized sequestration for cutting the defense budget, Christie took out a button in his pocket with that very message.
Rubio, by contrast, is more of a triangulator. Asked about the administration’s lack of support for law enforcement, Rubio expressed his unequivocal backing for the police before sounding a sympathetic note towards those minorities who feel under siege. “There are a significant number of communities in this country, however, where minority communities in particular feel that their relationship with law enforcement is really bad. And I personally know people that have confronted this,” Rubio said at the Berlin town hall.