Secret battles behind the GOP freak show: The backroom struggles for Republican domination

The candidates were all in New England last month, and they were doing more than just appealing to the base

Published May 5, 2015 3:58PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker                      (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Rebecca Cook/Sara Stathas)
Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Rebecca Cook/Sara Stathas)

NASHUA, N.H. — There were questions about President Obama’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. There was a man with a boot on his head promising a free pony for every American. There was Donald Trump.

But amid the circus surrounding this month's Republican “leadership summit” in New Hampshire, a handful of experienced political operatives were making what may turn out to be a momentous decision: which of the 19 or so candidates to guide through the Granite State’s quirky primary process. Hiring experienced politicos is critical for a candidate to do well in New Hampshire, a state that prides itself on expecting a personal touch from politicians. But with so many Republicans considering presidential run, there aren’t enough staffers to go around.

Prospective candidates “should have been thinking about staffing for some time,” said Andrew Smith, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and director of the UNH Survey Center. “Most of the top level political operatives in the state have been taken.” So the handful of top prospects who are still uncommitted are in high demand. The summit's candidate cattle call gave them a chance to compare their suitors.

That’s what Jamie Burnett did. He was Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire political director in 2008 and worked on the Bush campaign in 2004, but he’s uncommitted so far in this election. “I can’t work with somebody unless I know I’m going to vote for them. And I haven’t really figured that part out yet,” he said. “There are a couple of people I know I wouldn’t want to vote for, but I still want to see what the others have to offer.” He didn’t name the candidates he wouldn’t work for. But he said the summit was useful for comparing the others side-by-side and watching the reactions of attendees to their messages.

Paul Collins is in the same boat. Collins was Jon Huntsman’s New Hampshire strategist in 2012. He said he’s heard from “a couple different campaigns” so far, but still isn’t sure who’s campaign he’ll join.

Nineteen Republicans who are running or may be running for president spoke at the two-day “First in the Nation Republican Leadership” conference in Nashua. The lineup ranged from big names — former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — to the long shots, like former New York governor George Pataki and Donald Trump.

Longshot or no, it’s still anyone’s race at this point, according to Smith, the University of New Hampshire pollster.

“I don’t know that I would say there are candidates who have no chance of winning,” he said. “There’s nobody that’s in a position to say that they are a leading candidate.” So even the Patakis of the world are going to be in the market for advisers to guide them through the New Hampshire process. Representatives for Pataki, and several of the other potential candidates, did not respond to requests for comment.

The weekend provided a forum for more than just a sober assessment of the candidates. Against the backdrop of 19 Republicans eagerly courting the GOP base, the summit couldn’t help but occasionally devolve into parody.

Shortly after Texas Senator Ted Cruz finished his speech, Vermin Supreme, a perennial presidential candidate who wears a signature black boot on his head, showed up at the summit. Wearing multiple neckties and sticking his tongue out as far as it would go, he posed for selfies with the blazer-clad attendees and asked them if he should run as a Republican this year.

(Regardless of which party he picks, he promises to give “a free pony to every American” if elected.)

During former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton’s turn on the stage, one woman asked whether President Obama, who she said is “smuggling the Muslim Brotherhood into the White House” and “amassing his own tanks and assault weapons,” is trying to become a dictator. No one in the crowd reacted, though Bolton shot down the dictator idea.

“There are a lot of theories about what motivates the president,” he said. “Here’s mine: He went to Columbia and Harvard Law School.”

Outside the convention hall on the summit’s second day, about a hundred marchers from the group New Hampshire Rebellion arrived with signs urging changes to the country’s campaign finance system. Another campaign finance reform group, Stamp Stampede, pulled up in its “Amend-O-Matic StampMobile” truck, offering to stamp attendees’ dollar bills with slogans like “NOT TO BE USED FOR BRIBING POLITICIANS” and “CORPORATIONS ARE NOT PEOPLE.”

The people inside the summit apparently didn’t take notice; there was no discussion of campaign finance during the two-day event.

The candidates’ campaigns — and, currently, the undeclared candidates’ super PACs — will end up trucking out-of-staters into New Hampshire to fill some roles. But politics in the state are a bit different than elsewhere, and experts say a politician who wants any chance of winning the primary needs at least a few staffers with real experience in the Granite State.

“This is our professional sport,” Burnett said. “We’re not known for much in New Hampshire, but this is what we’re known for, and people take it really seriously. So you need to have some good eyes and ears on the ground.”

Any politician hoping to make Burnett his eyes and ears will have to try a bit harder, though. After the two-day convention, he said it was interesting to see the candidates side by side, but he hasn’t joined any of them.

“No game-changing moments occurred,” he said. “Thus far I am still undecided.”

By Michael Linhorst

Michael Linhorst covered New Jersey politics for the Bergen Record.

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2016 Elections Gop Jeb Bush New Hampshire New Hampshire Primary Scott Walker Ted Cruz The Republican Party