The candidate was running late, so a clutch of neighbors did what one typically does roughly a month from New Hampshire’s primary: they talked politics, and these days that is synonymous with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
“He says what I’m thinking,” said one man of the brash billionaire who has shown little concern for offending voting blocks such as women, Hispanics or Muslims. “He makes me smile,” another piped up sheepishly. “Man, his crowds are huge. I saw him in Rochester and he had 2,000 people,” a third neighbor chimed in near the back of the standing-room only crowd waiting for a Trump rival, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Even as these voters awaited Rubio at a senior center in Raymond, N.H., Trump was winning the buzz battle around the emergency exits. He remains the larger-than-life figure in the Republican primary, and it’s tough for his non-celebrity rivals to catch a break. He might be setting himself—and the GOP with him—on fire, but no one can deny that his flame is brighter than anyone else’s.
That’s the problem for candidates such as Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The mainstream candidates are, for the moment, being overshadowed by Trump and his theatrics. A Trump tweet dominates cable news even as his rivals are doing what traditionally has counted for campaigning: meeting with voters, answering their questions, stopping at local businesses.
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“You can’t compete on his level, so why try?” asks a top aide to a Trump antagonist. “We’re out here doing what voters demand, and he’s in Massachusetts because he thinks anything north of 116th Street is New Hampshire. He should use some of his money to buy a map.” Indeed, Trump was campaigning in Lowell, Mass., five miles south of the New Hampshire border Monday night as Rubio, Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former tech executive Carly Fiorina and Sen. Rand Paul were busy in New Hampshire.
Don’t count out these anti-Trumps, however. New Hampshire voters are starting to consider more seriously Trump’s candidacy. The former Apprentice star has stayed atop state and national polls for months, far longer than his rivals ever predicted. Yet as Primary Day gets closer, voters are starting to probe the candidates and their records. In Trump’s case, that record includes previous support for Obamacare-like health care, defense of abortion rights and cash donations to Democrats including Hillary Clinton—unpopular moves among conservatives, to say the least.
“There are a lot people who will go to the sideshow, but that doesn’t mean they’re buying the acrobats,” said Don Croteau, a 72-year-old voter who calls Manchester home. “Trump is fun to watch, but he cannot take his act to the White House. It would be impossible.”
To help voters along with their education, Trump’s rivals have started sharpening their criticism. Take Christie. On Monday morning, he scheduled a speech ostensibly to talk about American leadership in the world. By the end, it was clear that his goal was to implore fellow Republicans to get serious about the race and end their flirtation with Trump. “These are among the most dangerous and perilous times in our country’s recent history. These times and these challenges demand a grown up to be our candidate,” said Christie, a former federal prosecutor. “Showtime is over, everybody. We are not electing an entertainer in chief.”
Or Kasich, the self-appointed Trumpslayer. In the basement of a Manchester social club, the Ohio Governor said the theatrics were lending a notion of unpredictability and drama to the campaign, but were not likely to help voters make better decisions. “I’m not going to jump on the top of my bus and yell,” Kasich said, shaking his head on Monday evening. He has been among the most strident voices in opposing Trump, a role he continued as he closed his meeting with voters with a reminder that Trump’s signature policy proposal is to build an enormous wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. “Maybe if some people get elected, the Mexicans will have to build a wall to keep us out,” Kasich said with a chuckle. “I’m just going to leave it there.”
Or Rubio. He, too, has been sharpening his barbs against Trump. “This is an election where people love to talk tough,” Rubio said Sunday. “Talk is cheap.”
The ground is starting to shift, albeit more slowly than some campaign advisers would have hoped. Consider Joe McCormack, an 85-year-old Navy veteran who started his Sunday a Trump supporter and ended it a Rubio convert. “When I walked in here, I was voting for Donald Trump. Not now,” McCormack said after a Rubio town hall in Hampton, New Hampshire. Rubio’s pitch on broadening the party to include immigrants—as opposed to Trump’s promise to round up immigrants in the country illegally and deport them—swayed him.
Yet even as Rubio was wrapping up a separate Raymond, a voter brought up Trump and offered an uncertain assessment. “The pundits and prognosticators say Trump cannot beat her. I don’t know if they’re right or not,” a voter told Rubio. The Floridian did his best to convince the voter that he was a better candidate to face Clinton in a head-to-head general election. First, though, Rubio must become the nominee.
And for that to happen—and the same can be said for all of his rivals, too—Trump has to lose his command of the GOP and the attention of its voters. So far, that’s been a bad bet.