CONCORD, N.H. — Campaigning for president — officially or unofficially — often forces candidates to do things they might not want to do.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) stopped by a Dunkin’ Donuts on Friday and later admitted that he ordered a coffee with cream — violating his “paleo” diet.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) broke with political tradition and talked to reporters while wearing a ballcap given to him by a member of Gun Owners of America. The governor is a strong gun rights supporter, but politicians are rarely seen sporting headwear.
Bush and Walker insist that they’re not yet candidates for the presidency. But both men arrived on Friday to meet quickly and privately with a wide range of local Republican royalty — current and former mayors, governors and lawmakers and a handful of professional operatives who can help make more introductions in the months ahead.
Those who met with Bush and Walker offered few details and said they’re keeping an open mind, with about 11 months to go before anyone casts a primary ballot.
“Too early to be able to make any intelligent comments,” former New Hampshire Republican governor John H. Sununu said in an e-mail.
He met with Walker on Friday and with Bush on Saturday.
“I never ask them to kiss my ring, just to come in and visit,” said Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas.
He played host to both candidates and told them that he’s increasingly concerned about New Hampshire’s growing heroin epidemic.
“What we like to do is kick the tires and get a chance to meet candidates in person and see them often,” said Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.). He hosted a fundraiser Friday that Bush agreed to attend. Guinta said Bush first made contact last year by making a donation to his election campaign.
“We’ll certainly take up those offers to help,” he added.
Until Friday, Bush hadn’t been to New Hampshire since 2000, when he flew with about 200 Floridians to hand out oranges and campaign on behalf of his brother George W. Bush. Walker hadn’t traveled here since 2012, when he met with local Republicans and campaigned in Mitt Romney’s ultimately unsuccessful presidential bid.
Walker is sitting atop recent public opinion polls, prompting some Bush supporters to begin calling attention to the governor’s record and his shifting position on ethanol subsidies and immigration reform.
Walker defended himself Saturday after delivering a rousing speech before hundreds of GOP activists.
“It’s just a narrative from the other campaigns that refers to the fact that we have a strong reputation of keeping our word,” Walker told reporters.
He conceded that he has dropped his support for comprehensive immigration reform, because he “listened to people all across the country, particularly border governors, who saw how this president messed that up.”
On the issue of ethanol, Walker said that he opposes it for his home state and that “we eventually want the standard phased out” in Iowa — the state that holds the first presidential caucus and favors the subsidies.
Walker spoke at the end of an hours-long training session for New Hampshire’s most die-hard Republicans. He outlined a plan for “growth, reform and safety” and especially stirred the crowd when he talked about the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism.”
“We need a president who will do whatever it takes. Whatever it takes,” he said as people jumped to their feet.
Beth Scaer, a software engineer from Nashua, attended the speech and said she wants to hear more from Republicans about their opposition to abortion before picking a candidate. But she said that Walker is enjoying early support because “he’s down-to-earth. He speaks really well — like Reagan did.”
Bush, meanwhile, tried to avoid comparisons with Walker. Asked about Walker’s suggested front-runner status Friday afternoon, he said, “I’m not a candidate.
“Maybe he is — I don’t know. You can’t be a front-runner until you start running.”
But when reporters pressed him again later Friday, Bush conceded that Walker “has changed his views on immigration.”
Bush spent his Friday night at the Dover home of Fergus and Jennifer Cullen, who invited 100 guests — and about 60 members of the media — to hear Bush answer questions on health care, energy policy, the national debt and immigration reform.
Fenton Groen, of Rochester, N.H., asked Bush whether he would have supported fully funding the Department of Homeland Security as part of a recent spending bill. Bush didn’t give a direct answer, instead saying that lawmakers should use “regular order” to pass a budget and enact legislation barring President Obama from using executive actions to change immigration policy.
Groen wasn’t impressed: “He’s trying to appeal to the center. That’s not what I’m looking for.”
But Bush won over Beth Monnelle, a local community college professor. She asked Bush whether he agreed with Obama’s proposal to make community college free of charge.
“He said without hesitation, ‘That’s wrong.’ And I agree,” she said.
“If he runs, he’s got my vote. I just like him. I have a good feeling for him,” she said. “You know what I appreciated the most? He answered the questions. He didn’t just beat around the bush — no pun intended.”