Stage set for chaos as New Hampshire primary looms

AP News
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Posted: Jan 29, 2016 4:20 PM
Stage set for chaos as New Hampshire primary looms

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Uncertainties are mounting in New Hampshire as Republican presidential candidates fail to sway the state's many fence-sitters one way or the other, despite months of outreach by the various campaigns.

More than 40 percent are not registered with any political party, giving them the power to choose which party they'd like to vote with come Feb. 9.

Seeking to emerge as the establishment contender against billionaire Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, four of those candidates — John Kasich, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush — are scrambling to find anything that will set them apart. With Trump maintaining a commanding lead in the state, the battle has intensified among the rest of the pack as they look to elbow each other out for a second-place finish.

"What the hell is taking so long with you people?" New Jersey Gov. Christie half-joked at a town hall in Portsmouth last week. "I mean, c'mon now!"

Kasich, Ohio's sitting governor, is the latest to claim momentum in the rollercoaster race, pointing to endorsements from several major New Hampshire newspapers and an uptick in preference polls. Once an afterthought, most polls show Kasich is among the candidates vying for second place.

He's attracting relatively small crowds, but his rivals are taking no chances. The outside political organization backing Bush, called Right to Rise, has launched television ads declaring Kasich "wrong on New Hampshire issues," citing his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio — something New Hampshire has also done.

"You also know that you're rising when Jeb Bush's operation starts throwing negative ads at you," Kasich spokesman Chris Schrimpf said. "Three weeks ago they weren't spending millions on TV against us."

The jabs go both ways. Several of Kasich's top New Hampshire backers scheduled a press conference Friday, right across from Bush's Manchester campaign office in a clear attempt to steal the former Florida governor's thunder.

The attacks are coming from all sides. The super PAC backing Rubio, Florida's junior senator, is bashing nearly every other candidate on the air, while Christie's campaign sends out emails almost daily highlighting inconsistencies in his opponents' records.

Some differ in their approach. Christie blatantly goes after his rivals, while Kasich professes positivity, leaving the trash talk to his campaign staff and the outside group backing him.

But Mike Dennehy, a longtime GOP strategist in New Hampshire who is not with any campaign, said it's a mistake for the candidates to launch their attacks at each other rather than Trump.

"They're all shooting each other up so much that none of them are going to create any distance between themselves," Dennehy said. "They're all going to end up tied for third place between eight and 11 percent, and then they're doomed."

And some voters say the negativity is a turnoff.

Judith McKenna, 66, said she emailed the Bush campaign to complain after receiving recorded phone calls promoting his candidacy and "trashing all the other candidates."

McKenna added that she's leaning toward Rubio or Christie, whom she's already seen twice.

Despite having attended multiple town halls and candidate events, she said she's still undecided — and she's not alone.

Bruce McCracken, a 66-year-old retired teacher, has seen nine presidential candidates in recent weeks, including Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders. Yet, he's still mulling whether to vote in the GOP or Democratic primary.

He says Marco Rubio "shows more compassion" than other Republican candidates and feels Kasich's experience as Ohio governor is a plus. But for now, at least, he's leaning toward a vote for Sanders — senator in neighboring Vermont.

But if Sanders maintains his comfortable lead in New Hampshire over Clinton, McCracken said he'd rather use his vote in the more unpredictable GOP contest and vote for someone other than Trump.

"You do these calculations in New Hampshire," he laughed.

Andy Smith, a political scientist and director of the UNH Survey Center, says voters like McCracken, who are unsure which primary to vote in, are relatively unusual.

Not so unusual, however, are voters who wait until the last minute to make up their minds. Data from a recent UNH poll shows that just 31 percent of GOP voters have 'definitely decided' on a candidate. And in the 2012 contest, 21 percent of Republican voters didn't make up their minds until primary day, Smith said.

This late in the game, the candidates wouldn't mind a little more certainty.

"There's so many undecided people, and I wish they were all committed to me," Kasich recently told reporters. "What am I not doing right?"

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AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.