By Ben Kamisar - 01/06/16 06:00 AM EST
Candidates have kicked off the new year with a strong emphasis on combating drug addiction, an issue that ravages the early-voting state of New Hampshire.
Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Chris Christie — all banking on success in the Granite State — have devoted the most time on the stump talking about the issue and spent Tuesday addressing a major New Hampshire addiction forum.
New Hampshire posted the third highest rate of overdose deaths of all states in 2014, a 75 percent increase from the year before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And last year, first responders gave out about 2,900 shots of Narcan, an emergency treatment for a narcotic overdose, according to Dana Lemire with Hope for New Hampshire Recovery. That’s on top of the about 400 overdose deaths the state saw last year.
“What that means is the total really could have been 3,300 deaths — that’s crazy,” he said.
“That wakes people up and gets their attention.”
New Hampshire’s primary is seen as must-win for these four candidates; all are polling better in the state than nationally. The recent RealClearPolitics average shows Christie in fourth place in the state, 2 percentage points behind second place Marco RubioMarco RubioOpposition to Obama's radical disarmament agenda has proven effective Independent candidate sues to get on Florida Senate debate stage Rubio ‘deeply concerned’ by Trump’s Cuba business MORE. Kasich is less than 3 points behind Rubio in the state, with Bush and Fiorina behind him.
Hope for New Hampshire runs the only recovery community center in the state and has been visited by White House hopefuls traveling through the state, including Bush, Christie and Democratic candidate Bernie SandersBernie SandersAnti-trade sens. say chamber would be crazy to pass TPP Vulnerable NH Republican ties reelection bid to Trump Overnight Finance: Congress poised to avoid shutdown | Yellen defends Fed from Trump | Why Obama needs PhRMA on trade MORE.
Lemire said the exposure candidates have brought to the issue has been “great,” while the results have been “even greater” as far as helping channel resources and shifting stigmas surrounding addiction.
For Christie, the topic has helped to create national attention and higher poll numbers in the state.
Despite a slide at the polls late in the fall, Christie’s stock rose after a widely praised conversation about his mother’s addiction to smoking and a friend’s drug abuse went viral. That rise has helped to underscore the salience of the issue in this crowded GOP race.
“No one came to me and said, ‘Hey, listen, your mother was dumb. She started smoking when she was 16, then after we told her it was bad for her, she kept doing it, so we’re not going to give her chemotherapy, we’re not going to give her radiation, we’re not going to giver her any of that stuff,’ ” Christie said in the fall.
“No one said that,” he added. “No one said that about someone who had cancer.”
“Yet somehow, if it’s heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say, ‘Well, they decided. They’re getting what they deserved.”
Both Bush and Fiorina got personal ahead of Tuesday’s forum, penning op-eds that shared how addiction affected their lives. Bush’s daughter struggled with addiction while he served as governor, while Fiorina’s stepdaughter died at 35 years old after her battle with addiction.
“As a father, I have felt the heartbreak of drug abuse,” Bush wrote in a post on Medium, a blogging platform regularly used by a handful of campaigns, in one of the few times he’s gone into depth on his daughter’s struggle.
“It’s very debilitating when you have a loved one who is struggling, and you can’t control it.”
Fiorina’s piece on Time magazine’s website details her step-daughter’s painful slide into addiction and emphasizes her own call to stop “criminalizing addiction.”
“Unfortunately, too many of the men and women I have met on the campaign trail have experienced tragedies like ours,” she wrote. “This is a battle that we must fight. There are things that we can and must do.”
At the forum, Bush unveiled his drug control plan that includes reducing mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses and increasing the reliance on drug courts instead of sending addicts through the conventional justice system.
But despite the widespread agreement, it’s a thin line to walk for the candidates whose base is skeptical of increasing the size of the federal government or deepening the debt with more spending.
“As a conservative, I see limits to what the federal government is capable of doing and I’m not persuaded that this is an issue that they have a dramatic role to play,” Cullen said.
In his mind, a candidate should tell voters that while the government definitely should provide funding to stop drug abuse, people must buy in at the local level to help addicts in their own life get help.
“No government worker is ever going to fill that role as effectively as you as a citizen can. That’s the kind of answer that, in my view, is going to get a round of applause at the town hall meeting,” he added.
That stance differs from that of Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton camp slams Trump on reported Cuba business ties Trump shouldn't mess with Miss Universe Pelosi sees 'makings of a wave' of Dem House victories MORE, who has embraced the issue as she looks to wrestle away New Hampshire from Sanders. She has proposed a $10 billion addiction treatment plan that uses federal dollars to spur states to act.
But Republicans have, by and large, rejected such broad public spending, and Bush, Fiorina, Christie and Kasich have all embraced sentencing reform for nonviolent drug offenses along with more limited spending and fostering more participation at the local level.
“We don’t need to give a school teacher money or training to say, ‘don’t get on drugs,’ ” Kasich said Tuesday at the New Hampshire addiction forum.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t have priorities at the federal levels, but folks, we keep waiting for Godot to come into the room. There is no Godot. It’s on us.”