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The GOP field descends on the Granite State: ‘It’s a different ballgame in New Hampshire’

Christie's here in New Hampshire -- along with nearly every other major GOP candidate. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
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NASHUA, N.H. — Just days after Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the race — and days before she heads to New Hampshire herself — more than a dozen Republican presidential hopefuls descended on the first-in-the-nation primary state Friday to jockey for a coveted breakout moment in the battle to take her on.

GOP rivals at a party gathering tested out new lines of attack on the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination — and on each other — as they angled to be seen as her best-positioned challenger.

The attendance by a bevy of ambitious Republicans underscores the intense competition already underway in New Hampshire, which plays a critical role in the nominating process. With no clear front-runner here, campaigns are rushing to make inroads with primary voters who traditionally demand personal interaction and unceasing attention.

The “leadership summit,” organized by the state Republican Party as a fundraiser and kickoff to primary season, began Friday morning and will run through Saturday night in Nashua.

In all, nearly 20 Republicans who are running for president or considering bids — including GOP long shots such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), billionaire real estate mogul Donald J. Trump and former diplomat John Bolton — are roaming the halls at Crowne Plaza hotel.

Over 600 Republicans sat in ballroom here Friday, along with hundreds of credentialed reporters, according to a state GOP official. Each speaker was allotted about 30 minutes, enough time to make an impression and introduce themselves to voters who follow politics as closely as they do the Boston Red Sox.

“It’s a field of dreams phenomenon,” exclaimed Fred Barnes, the conservative writer, in a speech Friday morning, referencing the “intense press coverage” and the number of Republican figures big and small in the building. “This campaign has started so early.”

Swipes at Clinton were immediate. “She and Bill were a year ahead of me at Yale Law, so I’ve been burdened with them for 20 years longer than everybody else,” Bolton said in an interview. “She was a radical then and she’s a radical today.”

[Hillary Clinton to make first 2016 campaign visit to New Hampshire.]

These types of events, featuring a swirling mass of candidates, voters and members of the media — often derided as “cattle calls” by insiders — have taken on increased importance as Republicans seek political oxygen in an environment where the fight over donors and headlines is daily and fierce. Perform well and it could lead to days if not weeks of coverage and buzz, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker learned in January after impressing at a similar Iowa conclave.

But in New Hampshire, it is the handshakes and a candidate’s ability to keep pace with the state’s flinty electorate that can matter as much as Web site clicks and donations generated under the klieg lights by a pithy barb about Clinton or a moving oration about a hardscrabble childhood.

Unlike Iowa, which holds the initial presidential caucuses, the home of the first primary has historically been less inclined to rally behind an evangelical conservative, and open to GOP candidates with a maverick streak.

[Dan Balz: New Hampshire is not Iowa.]

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has seen his poll numbers wilt, nodded toward that custom this week by giving a policy address on overhauling Social Security, holding town-hall meetings, and stopping by at Chez Vachon, a cozy spot on the west side of Manchester that slings greasy-spoon staples.

Christie returned Friday for another forum — holding court at a sports bar — after his speech in Nashua.

“Anyone can come back in New Hampshire,” said Brian Murphy, the chairman of the Rockingham County GOP who met privately with Christie on Tuesday. “I told him, ‘Keep coming back. And then come back again and again. If he does that, and keeps his plainspoken way, you never know.”

Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), a Long Island Republican who may jump into the presidential race later this year, was optimistic as he arrived alone to the confab and warned his party to avoid lurching to the right.

“You’ve got to be realistic and you’ve got to reach out to the old Reagan Democrats -- the cops, the firefighters -- if you’re going to go up against Clinton.”

With the GOP field shaping up to be one of the most crowded and competitive it’s been in years, the push for strong and sprawling New Hampshire campaigns has become urgent, leading to a spate of in-state hires, phone calls to power brokers, and near-universal acceptance of the state party’s invitations to its political festival.

And it was festive. An upbeat Graham sought out radio interviewers, talking up global affairs — and his chances — with chatty Southern charm. College students posed with a life-size cardboard cutout of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Trump’s aide gave out pieces of Reese’s candy and white-and-gold Trump stickers.

Ryan Williams, a New Hampshire-based GOP consultant who advised Mitt Romney in 2012, said Friday’s setting was unusual for New Hampshire, which has long been defined more by diner stops and house parties than business-expo-style confabs lined with tables hawking promotional gear and campaign pamphlets.

“It’s a place where the intimate matters, where you need to impress in living rooms,” Williams said. He praised the event for giving voters an opportunity for voters to meet a field that is exceptionally large and still growing. Friday’s slate alone featured speeches by Bolton, Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), and former New York governor George Pataki, all possible Republican candidates.

As with most speakers, Pataki issued a flurry of criticism at Clinton as reporters and voters looked on, looking for buzz. “We don’t need Batman or Spiderman to beat Hillary Clinton,” he said. Later, he held casual press availability after asking reporters if they had any questions. As he responded, his wife, Libby, snapped pictures with her cell phone.

"I kid that every four years there's the Olympics, the World Cup, and Pataki shows up thinking about running for president,” Pataki joked in his speech.

Beyond their on-stage turns, many attendees held events to huddle with activists and party leaders as they build their networks of support in a state with a small population but full of well-informed Republican blocs, whether libertarians, military hawks, or moderates.

The campaign of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who will speak Saturday and announced earlier this month, was bustling. State Rep. Tammy Simmons (R), a Paul ally, handed out “Rand” stickers as she stood next to a life-size cut-out of the senator.

Simmons said Paul is benefiting from the base of support left over from the presidential campaigns of his father, Ron Paul, who finished second in the 2012 New Hampshire primary.

“People always say millennials don’t vote, which isn’t true. They don’t vote for Republicans,” Simmons said. “We’re all over the college campuses in New Hampshire. We’re going after that large group of people that sits out of politics or doesn’t think we should be as involved in the world with our troops.”

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who sits in the top tier of polls of New Hampshire Republicans, has been busy with his spadework, a sign that even the son and brother of presidents can take little for granted. He arrived Thursday for a “politics and pie” event in Concord, the state capital, and appeared Friday at a “politics and eggs” breakfast at Saint Anselm College in Manchester before heading to Nashua.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who jumped into the 2016 contest earlier this week, met Friday with students at Manchester Community College and attend a house party downtown before delivering the dinner speech at the state party’s confab, an envied slot.

Walker, who holds a double-digit lead in the latest Public Policy Polling survey of New Hampshire Republicans, will give the keynote speech Saturday in Nashua, preceded by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has moved closer to a possible run in recent weeks, and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), a firebrand freshman who announced his campaign last month.

“Walker is a very quiet man but I like him and his almost military approach,” said State Sen. Regina Birdsell (R). “He’s popular because he’s been through the gauntlet in Wisconsin and we’ve paid attention.”

Saturday’s bill also includes a galaxy of lesser-known GOP stars who are eyeing the White House: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Trump, Graham, and former Silicon Valley executive Carly Fiorina.

Huckabee’s adviser, Hogan Gidley, said that the former Baptist preacher would make an announcement later Friday on Fox News, the channel where he once served as a paid contributor, suggesting that the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses is moving toward a second presidential run.

Since New Hampshire’s GOP presidential primary is open —allowing both Republicans and unaffiliated voters to participate — the magnetic pulling of the candidates to the hard right in pitch and posture often seen at Iowa conferences was not as evident on Friday in Nashua.

“It’s a different ballgame in New Hampshire,” Williams said. “They caucus out in Iowa, but if you’re going to win here, you’ve got to put together a coalition of conservatives, party faithful, and independents. With the Democratic primary a fair accompli, you’ll probably see independents coming over to the Republican side to vote.”

Such high stakes inevitably lead to tensions. At Friday’s luncheon, former Texas governor Rick Perry rejected the notion that party should play for the center as Republicans dined on stuffed shells, Caesar salad, and green beans and took a not-so-veiled swipe at Bush, who in the past has supported the Common Core national education standards.

Raising his voice, Perry called Common Core, which has become anathema to many conservatives, “nonsense” and as “problematic as Obamacare.” For the most part, the crowd nodded along. Alluding to Cruz, Rubio, and other senators in the hunt, Perry, 65, warned Republicans against nominating a youthful lawmaker.

“We’ve spent eight years with a young, inexperienced United States senator,” Perry said. “We’re paying a tremendous price.”

Perry went on to reflect on his failed 2012 campaign for the Republican nomination, when he stumbled in the primary debates and dealt with back problems. This time around, if he runs, he said it’d be different. The lessons he learned: “You’ve got to spend a lot of time in New Hampshire and you’ve got to be healthy.”

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[Jeb Bush: 'To hell with the diet.']

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