MANCHESTER, N.H. — All three are two-term Republican governors. They have all signed conservative laws in states that Democrats won in 2012. And here in New Hampshire, each is desperate to beat the others in the state’s crowded primary a month from now.
In what was once envisioned as a presidential campaign favoring candidates like them with state-executive experience, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich are trying — and often failing — to distinguish themselves from each other in the age of Donald Trump.
During town-hall meetings, diner stops and speeches to business groups in the state, Bush argues that his record as Florida governor was the most conservative. Christie emphasizes that he has succeeded as a Republican in Democratic New Jersey. Kasich touts job growth as governor of Ohio.
And all three want voters to disregard Trump. When two reporters simultaneously asked Bush questions this week that began with, “Governor, Donald Trump said . . .” he interrupted them.
“Governor Donald Trump? He is no governor,” Bush said after a campaign event Tuesday in Dover. “Do no insult the profession that I consider to be one of the highlights of my adult life.”
Christie, at a Rotary Club luncheon Monday in Manchester, said: “We’re not electing an entertainer in chief. We’re electing a commander in chief. And anger is fine and it is deserved, but anger is not a strategy.”
Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP state chairman, said that the primary here is a “zero-sum game” for the governors. “They don’t necessarily have to win here, they don’t have to beat Trump here, but they have to beat each other,” he said.
The state’s primary rules will award delegates only to a candidate who earns at least 10 percent of the vote. Given that the large GOP field here is led by Trump and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), there’s a chance that one governor will beat the other two but still leave the state with no delegates. A fourth-place finisher has not earned double-digit support here since Steve Forbes did in 1996.
“How does that person then go to voters and donors around the country and say you should consolidate around me as the mainstream alternative to stop Trump?” Cullen asked.
New Hampshire television viewers cannot miss a new ad being aired by Right to Rise USA, the super PAC supporting Bush. Titled “Three Governors,” it is part of a $10.5 million ad campaign airing through the primary on Feb. 9.
Pictures of Bush, Christie and Kasich flash on the screen as an announcer asks, “Which governor made his state number one in job creation?” With a loud whoosh, a check mark appears by Bush’s face as Christie and Kasich disappear. The ad also suggests Bush is most seasoned to deal with crisis management, pare down bloated entitlement programs and bolster national security.
A super PAC supporting Kasich, New Day for America, is spending more modestly, on direct mail attacking Christie’s gubernatorial record.
“His Budget Isn’t Balanced. His Credit Rating is Dropping. His Economy is Failing,” says a flier hitting mailboxes this week. “Chris Christie: Tough Talk. Weak Record.”
Christie, 53, who has a higher New Hampshire polling average than Bush, 62, and Kasich, 63, is relishing the attacks.
“Governor Kasich, Governor Bush are good guys and they were good governors, but they’ve had Republican legislatures their entire time. If they think that’s what it’s going to be like in Washington, they’re deadly wrong,” Christie said this week. “I’m just better qualified. I’m better tested. I’m more experienced.”
All three governors make stops in Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada, but New Hampshire dominates their strategy. As of Wednesday, Christie had spent the most time here, with 139 public appearances since 2014, according to a tally kept by New England Cable News and NBC News. In that same time period, the tally says, Kasich made 120 appearances and Bush 79.
On the stump here, the governors butter up voters and urge them to be more discerning — hoping that a little extra homework will deter them from Trump.
“You have a disproportionate responsibility, but you also have a disproportionate say in who the next president is going to be,” Bush said in Dover.
“You are among the most powerful people in the world right now. You and you alone will determine who the other 48 states have to pick from to be president of the United States,” Christie said in Manchester. “You are very powerful.”
“I want people to scour the record,” Kasich said in Nashua. “If people can see what you’ve done, then they have more confidence in what you say you want to do in the future.”
On Tuesday, the three governors showed up to the same event in Hooksett, a day-long forum on how to address the drug-addiction crisis roiling New England. The venue highlighted their contrasting styles.
Characteristically abrupt, Kasich interrupted the woman who introduced him at the event to take the stage. He told struggling addicts: “You just never know where life is going to take you. Ask the Lord to help you. Maybe you can get set free.”
Christie bounded up onstage and crumpled into a chair, causing his pants to rise up above his socks, exposing his legs. He said the country needs to talk about addiction differently. “We don’t talk about this in public as a disease. We talk about it in public as a moral failing,” he said. “. . . As long as we continue to do that, we’re going to continue to treat this differently than other diseases.”
Bush spoke later from a lectern, delivering remarks in a crisp black suit and dark tie as he recounted his daughter’s struggle with addiction. “When I was governor, my wife and I went through a very public challenge as a family,” he said. “My daughter has addiction problems and is in recovery right now. Thank God she is drug free.”
Many in the audience at the drug policy forum were recovering drug addicts or addiction specialists, so they generally favored Christie, who touted his familiarity with recovery programs as a federal prosecutor and governor.
Christie “just seems more knowledgeable, more hands-on, more realistic,” said Sandra Pascucci, from Manchester. She said Bush is her second choice.
Kathleen Russo, from Franklin, N.H., said Christie is “no-nonsense and more common-sense, and I think he could probably get us back on track.”
Russo said that she liked Kasich’s “casual approach” of just wearing a shirt with his sleeves rolled up.
“To be honest,” she said, “he reminds me of a politician. He gives the padded answer.”