Republicans’ real battle in NH may be for second place
© Getty

BEDFORD, N.H. — Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats target Trump's border wall in defense bill debate Obama ethics czar: Trump fundraiser at his DC hotel ‘illegal’ Trump trolling of Comey — Not presidential MORE is heading into the New Hampshire presidential primary on Tuesday as the favorite with a high-stakes battle playing out behind him for second place.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are fighting for survival. All three are desperate for a strong showing in the state, landing either solidly in second place or at least ahead of Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioCapitol Police arrest 40 during healthcare protests New Alexandra Pelosi documentary brings together GOP, Dem members Senators urge Trump to do right thing with arms sales to Taiwan MORE (R-Fla.), the third-place finisher in Iowa.

Many believe Bush has the ground game to survive. He’s easily winning the sign wars in the state, his red “Jeb!” signs jutting out of the snowy landscape.

Kasich has the buzz on the ground. He has the backing of more newspaper editorial boards in the state than anyone, and he is hustling to win independent voters by embracing centrist positions and avoiding attacks on his rivals.

Christie may have helped Bush, Kasich and Trump with his forceful takedown of Rubio during Saturday’s debate. His criticism that Rubio is a robot who can’t speak without a memorized speech was part of the discussion all day on cable news shows and also picked up by the Bush campaign.

Yet the attacks do not appear to have helped Christie, who was behind Trump, Rubio, Kasich, Bush and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzHealthcare wish lists: What moderates, conservatives want Overnight Healthcare: GOP infighting erupts over bill | How Republican governors could bring down ObamaCare repeal | Schumer asks Trump to meet with Dems GOP infighting erupts over healthcare bill MORE (R-Texas) in tracking polls released on Monday.

Christie has promised to campaign on regardless of the results in New Hampshire, but it would be hard for him to continue if he places sixth.

GOP candidates fanned out across the state on Monday to make last-ditch appeals to New Hampshire’s notoriously late-deciding voters.

Trump has led New Hampshire’s polls for months and needs a strong showing after an unexpectedly weak second-place finish in Iowa.

In the final days, the billionaire businessman has turned to retail politicking at town halls and small diners, something he had eschewed for most of the cycle.

Trump dropped into Chez Vachon on Sunday, a Manchester diner, where he shook hands with patrons and stayed for breakfast. 

On Monday, he  conducted two more town halls where he fielded questions from citizens in intimate settings,  something he has rarely done.

One man asked Trump if he’d be able to turn away young Syrian refugees seeking entrance into the country.

“I can look at their faces and say, ‘Look, you can’t come here,’ ” Trump responded.

Rubio is seeking to come back from his debate performance by embracing his attacks on President Obama that led to Christie’s criticism.

“The core of this campaign is that statement and I’m going to continue to say it,” he declared Monday on CBS’s “This Morning.”

The senator drew thousands of supporters at events over the weekend and had more stops planned than any other candidate on Monday.

While Rubio and Bush and Christie have repeatedly battled in a series of debates, Kasich has sought to stay above the fray and appeal to voters looking for a pragmatist.

He conducted four town hall events on Monday, with a Windham woman telling the Ohio governor she’s trying to decide between him, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonJeff Bridges: ‘I’m rooting’ for Trump as a human being Leading Pelosi critic Moulton once penned effusive praise for her: report Dems land top recruit for Ros-Lehtinen's Florida district MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersNew Alexandra Pelosi documentary brings together GOP, Dem members Sanders: FBI inquiry of wife is 'pathetic' attack Why UK millennials voting for socialism could happen here, too MORE. Unaffiliated voters can check the box for candidates in either party.

“I’m the right porridge,” Kasich responded. “One of them is too hot, one of them is too cold.”

Bush, meanwhile, is going scorched-earth against Trump in the final hours. Trump is returning fire, helping to raise Bush’s profile here.

“It is a sign of real weakness when you call John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Senate panel passes defense policy bill | House panel presses on with markup | Trump officials say WH statement prevented Syria chemical attack | NATO pledges to raise spending Senate panel passes 0B defense policy bill GOP infighting erupts over healthcare bill MORE or Leo Thorsness or anybody else that was a POW, who served this country in a way that should be admired, American heroes — calling them losers?” Bush said at his Nashua town hall. “Donald Trump, you’re the loser!”

Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray told The Hill his internal polling shows that the Bush campaign, either through knocking on doors, phone calls or mailers, has reached more voters than any other Republican.

Based on their establishment support and ground games, “Bush and Kasich are the most likely to outperform their standing in the polls,” Murray said.

While Christie is drawing crowds at town halls, he’s been stuck at around 5 percent in polls.

Christie is hoping that his commitment to the state — he’s held more events here than any other candidate — will help him win over late-deciding voters.

At an event in Hudson on Monday, the governor wooed one undecided woman by bending down on one knee to speak to her.

“I hope she votes for me,” Christie said. “I’ve got dirt all over my pants.”

The woman responded that Christie had won her over and the crowd burst into cheers.

Cruz, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, doesn’t have to have a strong showing in New Hampshire. He’ll be a favorite in South Carolina’s Feb. 20 primary no matter what.

But he stands to benefit from being the only pure socially conservative candidate — besides retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose campaign is fading —  still standing.

His team also has been drilling down on the libertarian-minded voters who once backed Rand PaulRand PaulHealthcare wish lists: What moderates, conservatives want GOP infighting erupts over healthcare bill GOP senator on resolving healthcare differences: 'Even porcupines make love' MORE in the race.

“If we turn out everyone fed up with the bipartisan corruption of Washington, we will shock and astonish,” Cruz said at a Manchester event on Monday.

If the mainstream conservatives continue to split the vote, Cruz could pull into a surprising second-place finish, which would be a deathblow for several of his rivals.

Cate Martel contributed.