Claremont, New Hampshire
“Oh God no!” said Sununu, who has emerged as one of the former president’s biggest GOP critics. “Not even close.”
Here in New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation primary, one of the biggest questions hanging over the Republican presidential primary race is whether the contest is on the cusp of becoming more of a coronation for Trump than a hard-fought campaign.
In the Bob and Crystal Tilton household, it’s a bit of both.
“To catch up to Trump, it’s a big climb,” said Bob Tilton, a New Hampshire Republican who likes a handful of the GOP contenders, yet loves the former president and would be happy to see him return to the White House.
His loyalty to Trump puts him at odds with his wife, a Granite State Republican eager for a change.
“I’m not a Trump supporter. I think he’s had his time,” she said, sipping a bottle of water under the September sun at a Republican picnic. “There was enough controversy over him. It’s time to move on.”
She had barely finished speaking when her husband chimed in, saying: “They were attacking him constantly. How can anybody do a good job? I mean, he did, but he was constantly attacked.”
Their disagreement brings to life a monumental divide among some Republicans over the party’s direction as the summer campaign gives way to a fight for survival among the GOP candidates this fall. Trump continues to run circles around a crowded field, all of whom are struggling to break through. In a new CNN poll out this week, he was ahead of his nearest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by more than 30 percentage points.
But conversations with Republicans here this week offered a more measured view of the race than national polls suggest. While Trump supporters were vocal in their admiration for the former president, many voters said they were only beginning to size up the contenders and were open to alternatives leading up to the New Hampshire primary, which follows the Iowa caucuses early next year in kicking off the 2024 nominating contest.
“We need some young blood to change things. I think Vivek or DeSantis are the way to go,” said Linda Russell, a New Hampshire Republican, reciting the names of entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy or DeSantis. She also named former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as a candidate she wants to learn more about after watching the first GOP primary debate in August.
Russell said she would support Trump if he won the Republican nomination, but said he was not her first choice.
“I think everything was great when he was here, but there’s so much baggage with him,” Russell said. “I think people are going to vote for Biden just because they don’t like Trump.”
She is among the Republicans who fear Trump is too divisive to win back the White House, recalling that he fell short to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2016. Four years later, Trump again lost here, this time to Joe Biden by nearly 60,000 votes.
“That’s how Biden got in the last time,” Russell said. “We definitely need to get Biden out no matter what it takes.”
At a town meeting Tuesday night in Claremont, Haley confronted the question of electability to a crowded room of supporters and undecided voters.
“We’ve got to get this primary right,” Haley said, imploring Republicans to move beyond Trump. As for President Joe Biden, she said with a smile: “He knows I’ll stomp him.”
Shawn Walsh, a New Hampshire Republican, said he was unaware of Haley before the Republican debate last month in Milwaukee. He said he was impressed by her strength on the stage and after seeing her up close Tuesday night, he was more convinced than ever she would be a strong general election candidate.
“I think she’s the new face we need,” Walsh said. “She has the experience, the intelligence and she likes most of Trump’s policies.”
Sununu, who said he intends to issue an endorsement in the race later this fall, is set to appear with Haley at a campaign event on Wednesday. He has made similar appearances with other GOP candidates, hoping to draw attention to the contenders running against Trump.
“People want America fixed,” Sununu, who ruled out a 2024 presidential run earlier this year, told CNN. “As much as we agreed with a lot of the former president’s policies like draining the swamp, fiscal responsibility and securing the boarder, none of it happened.”
He added: “Let’s get a conservative in there who actually not just talks about the policy, but fulfills the mission. I think that’s an exciting opportunity most Republicans will grab onto.”
Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who served as ambassador to New Zealand in the Trump administration, has been hosting meet-and-greet picnics for Republican candidates. Before he introduced Pence to a crowd on Monday night, Brown struck a different tone than Sununu about the competitive nature of the contest.
“You know, I think so,” Brown said when asked if the campaign was still a true race. “I think people are looking to see what happens with President Trump. He’s got a very large lead, but he’s also dealing with some things we’ve never seen in our history.”
A potential wildcard in New Hampshire, Brown and Sununu both said, is the state’s large contingent of independent voters who can take part in the Republican primary. In the expected absence of a contested Democratic primary next year, independent voters may weigh in on the Republican side.
At the Pence picnic, Larry Rocha introduced himself to the former vice president as one of those independent voters. He left the Republican Party, he said, following the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. He said he would consider supporting Pence or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“I’m just waiting for someone to step up so I can feel comfortable voting for someone, not against someone,” Rocha said. “A lot of independents I know are watching very carefully.”