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New Hampshire takes the 2016 spotlight

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The New Hampshire primary is still 297 days away, but the Granite State will seize the 2016 spotlight this weekend.

Beginning on Friday, nearly the entire field of GOP hopefuls will descend on the first-in-the-nation primary state that figures to play critical role in determining the GOP nomination.

{mosads}The New Hampshire Republican Party’s leadership summit is the draw, but candidates will be looking to make the most of their visits by fanning out in search of inroads with voters in the carve-out state.

Among the state’s visitors this weekend are Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

The only major contender who won’t be in the state this weekend is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Walker is currently leading in New Hampshire polls. A survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling released Wednesday showed him with a double-digit lead, taking 24 percent support, followed by Cruz at 14 percent, Paul at 12 percent, and Bush at 10 percent.

But that doesn’t mean anything this early, according to Fergus Cullen, the former state Republican chairman who is writing a book on the history of the New Hampshire primaries.

“I don’t think there’s a frontrunner, it’s wide open,” he said. “History has not been kind to the candidate who has the lead in April…you’d much rather have your moment come in December or January.”

New Hampshire primary voters are known to have a fondness for mainstream conservative candidates, potentially providing an opening to the handful of establishment-minded Republicans that will be seeking to notch an early victory on the heels of the Iowa caucuses, which are historically kind to social conservatives.

“Those mainstream conservative Republicans tend to be the sweet-spot for where most Republican primary voters are here,” Cullen said.

In 2012, eventual nominee Mitt Romney ran away with the primary, taking 39 percent and beating the next closest Republican by 16 points.

Still, the state has a fierce independent streak. Former Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) — whose son is now running — finished second in the New Hampshire primary in 2012, taking a respectable 22 percent, followed by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 17 percent.

The biggest challenger from the socially conservative lane that year came from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who finished a distant fourth, taking only nine percent support after a surprising Iowa victory. 

GOP contenders with their eyes on the Granite State prize have already begun filing into the state ahead of the state party cattle call, and they’ll be keeping a busy schedule of events to make the most of the trip.

Walker, Bush, Christie and Rubio are among the candidates that will be looking to fill the ideological sweet-spot with mainstream conservatives.

Christie has been the busiest in the state this week, booking nine events over a three-day period.

The neighboring governor laid the groundwork for his campaign in the state last year. He travelled to New Hampshire a handful of times as the head of the Republican Governors Association, and earned chits for his work with the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein and Senate candidate Scott Brown.

He’s largely been absent from the state in recent months, but returned with a vengeance this week on a two-day swing that included a major policy address at Saint Anselm College on Tuesday, in which he outlined a proposal to overhaul Social Security and Medicare.

On Wednesday, Christie took his town hall show on the road, entertaining voters at a Londonderry event. He returns Friday for the leadership summit and another town hall event.

The New Jersey governor has perhaps the most at stake in New Hampshire. It’s been a rough few months of the year for him, and he’s buried in the polls behind a huge pack of GOP presidential contenders.

Republicans believe the town halls, where he’s quick on his feet, and his straight-talking style and folksy demeanor is on full display, offer a path forward for him.

But this weekend Christie will be competing with a host of other candidates that have similar establishment appeal and have circled New Hampshire as a prime opportunity to notch an early victory.

Bush hadn’t made a political visit to New Hampshire in more than a decade before arriving in mid-March for a spate of events. 

He’ll return Thursday night for the Concord City Republican Committee’s “Politics and Pies” series at the Snowshoe Club. On Friday, he’ll speak at the New England Council’s “Politics and Eggs” series, a popular stop for presidential contenders, before his afternoon address at the leadership summit.

Walker is also on a two-day swing through the state. He’ll deliver the Saturday evening keynote address at the leadership summit, and on Sunday will meet with local activists and elected officials at the Marion Gerrish Community Center in Derry.

And Rubio, who just announced his official candidacy this week, will hit the state Friday, meeting with students at Manchester Community College and attending a house party in the afternoon before giving that evening’s keynote address at the summit.

Meanwhile, Paul is the New Hampshire wildcard. 

The Kentucky senator will be looking to build on his father’s strong showing in 2012, while exploiting the state’s independent streak. He has raised the stakes considerably for his campaign there.

“We are going to do everything to win New Hampshire,” Paul said at a news conference in Milford the day after he launched his campaign. “I do think we need to win New Hampshire.” 

Paul will meet with local business leaders and activists at the D.W. Diner in Merrimack on Saturday and speak at the summit later that morning.

But the candidates running in the socially conservative lane won’t be ceding the state to their counterparts.

“It’s such a divided field, it’s not inconceivable that 25 percent could win it for one of these candidates, so all you have to do is assemble a coalition to get there,” said Cullen.

Cruz has gotten a huge boost in the polls since becoming the first major GOP contender to enter the field in late March. He’s currently in second place in New Hampshire, according to the PPP survey.

Cruz was last in the Granite State for a flurry of events in late March, and he has another two-day swing planned for this weekend.

The Texas senator will address the leadership summit on Saturday afternoon, before attending the annual meeting of New Hampshire Young Republicans. On Sunday, he’ll give remarks at the Londonderry Fish and Game Club, followed by a fundraiser for House Republicans that evening.

Like Cruz, Huckabee will also be looking to rally a coalition of evangelical Christians and social conservatives in the state. 

He’ll greet supporters at a breakfast on Saturday morning in Hudson, and attend a 2nd Amendment event at the Granite State Indoor Shooting Range and Gun Shop that afternoon.

Tags Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Rand Paul Ted Cruz

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