CONCORD, N.H.—Jeb Bush hadn’t been to New Hampshire in 15 years. Scott Walker hadn’t been in nearly three.
Yet the two front-runners for the Republican nomination arrived in the state at the same time this weekend, zipping past each other along I-93 while insisting that they were barely aware of the other.
“This was well-planned out in advance,” Bush said about the scheduling coincidence, as he toured a medical equipment plant in the town of Hudson, N.H.
Yet it was hard not to notice that when they weren’t talking at each other, they were talking about each other, near each other.
Walker has made much of his 2011 battle with Wisconsin’s unions, when he abruptly pushed to end collective bargaining rights for public employees, sparking a weeks of protests in the Capitol in Madison. He said he received death threats over the legislation. He titled his book “Unintimidated,” and said that it would prepare him as president to do battle with Islamic terrorists.
Bush has no similar bona fides, but he has stuck to his position on the Common Core education reforms and on a more liberalized immigration system, something that Walker has backed away from.
“You don’t abandon your core beliefs,” Bush told a group of business executives when asked about Common Core, an issue that has become radioactive among Republican primary voters. “I think you need to have a backbone. I think you need to able to persuade people this is a national crisis.”
And for immigration?
“It’s easy to say that anything you propose is amnesty, but that’s not a plan,” he said. “ That’s a sentiment, perhaps.”
While in Manchester on Friday, Walker spoke to a reporter from Bush’s home state newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times: “ I just think voters are going to look at this and say, ‘If we’re running against Hillary Clinton, we’ll need a name from the future, not a name from the past to win.’”
And what about those millions of dollars that Bush has raked in?
“There’s a lot of people who are loyal to that family because of an ambassadorship or an appointment or something like that.”
Walker likes to say that his reforms, and the backlash they created, helped spark the Occupy movement. He revels in the idea that he sparks fury on the left. At a house party in the town of Dover, Bush talked of his own reform efforts: He worked to reform Florida’s education system, which despite leaving “tire marks” on him, he said, didn’t cause the same level of outrage
“You can be a conservative and you can do it with joy in your heart. You don’t have to be angry about this. You can do it in a way that draw people towards our cause, and you can win,” he said. “We have to go out and reach out to people of every walk of life, not with a divisive message, but with one that is unifying.”
For years, New Hampshire had always been quirky state with the flinty libertarian streak that rewarded outsiders and upstarts. No more. On the Republican side, at least, Iowa tends to boost to the longshot social conservative, but it is New Hampshire where order goes to be restored. The last two cycles, New Hampshire has voted for the eventual nominee, derailing the hopes of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
But New Hampshire is also a place that keeps true to its reputation of making candidates work for it. It is a place where ordinary voters will tromp out of their house on a freezing cold Friday night, and drive for a half an hour in order to sit shoulder to shoulder at a house party for Bush. Where they will take a selfie with him and corner him about a local zoning ordinance, only to say later that they still want to hear from Bob Erhlich and Jim Gilmore before deciding who to support.
In the past, it also has not been kind to the Bushes. In 1992, the elder Bush never recovered after Pat Buchanan received 37 percent of the vote. In 2000, John McCain swamped George W, keeping his campaign alive far longer than many Bushies thought he could.
Jeb Bush is still officially in the exploratory phase of a campaign, and he was careful to not trip any wires that would push him out that phase before he is ready. When he arrived at biotech facility, the first question he received by a throng of 40 reporters there to greet him was “Are you going to be the next president?”
“Right now I am just learning,” Bush responded, as if touring a business in an early primary state was the equivalent of taking extra classes at a community college.
When, later, a nine-year-old asked him the same question, Bush paused for a moment.
“If I decide to run, that would be my intention, yes.”
The explosion of media outlets and interest in this primary have made the actual work of meeting votes here different when it was when his family members made their own ill-fated trips to the state. As more and more media vehicles pulled up in the parking lot, Bush’s aides fretted that there would be no room left for anyone else. When Bush bent down to inspect a piece of equipment, and a crush of reporters bent along with him in unison, the governor was heard to grumble, “I guess I am going to have to get used to this.”
He joked about a future in which the press would find their jobs automated, and when factory workers whipped out their cellphones, he told them, “Thirty years from now, when the press is gone, you will be able to tell your grandkids: This is what they were like!”
When a campaign aide directed Bush to a lab area in the factory, saying that it was a “clean” room and so the press had to stay behind, Bush responded, “Are you trying to imply something?”
Bush’s unwillingness to admit that what he was actually doing was campaigning for the actual job of president could create some awkwardness. When one questioner asked him about what he would do about Islamic terrorism if he were president, Bush said, “Well, I am considering the possibility of running,” and the then described what a hypothetical president should do.
At times, Bush sounded like his father, who famously told a New Hampshire town hall at one point, “Message: I care” a remark which led some observers at the time to wonder if he was reading from a cue card somewhere.
“I know if I am going to go beyond the consideration of running, I have to share my heart and tell my life story in a way that gives people a sense I care about them,” Bush told the house party.
Bush routinely batted away questions about Walker. The last thing his campaign team wants to do is elevate the Wisconsin governor and make the race a two-person contest. Bush has spoken openly about “losing” the primary election in order to win the general election, but what that means in practice is that Bush could stand to lose over half of the primary electorate (And with his views on immigration and common core, he probably would.) Instead, a big jumble of candidates on the conservative side creates a glide path for the Florida governor. The more isn’t just merrier; it means that Bush needs less and less of the vote to win.
Most Bush fans say that Walker is their second choice.
“He demonstrated a backbone by going in there saying ‘Here is what I am going to do to fix the problems,’” said Chris Williams, the head of the Nashua Chamber of Commerce, which hosted Bush. But Walker, he said, “took on the unions. He survived a recall. I have a lot of respect for someone who can go into a blue state that is hurting economically, turn it around and stick to his guns all at the same time.”
Part of Bush’s strategy was to leave him open for poking and prodding by that horde of media who followed him up here. And although Bush could be dismissive of questions he found ridiculous—like how he was different from his family, or what he would do to stave off Congressional gridlock—he showed little of the prickliness which he became known for in Florida. Instead, the governor held an impromptu news gaggle with the press at 9 o’clock at night, braving the cold to answer questions about the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Walker kept mostly away from the press, proof, Bush supporters said, of a candidate not yet ready for prime time (Walker’s campaign said he had to get to Washington for Saturday night’s Gridiron Dinner.)
Instead of gladhanding the press, Walker was the keynote speaker for a grassroots organizing event hosted by the state Republican Party. Wearing blue jeans and a sweater, Walker gave his usual stump speech, in which he thanked the audience for their prayers during the protests in Wisconsin, and talked about cutting taxes and taking on the teachers unions. And in answers to Bush’s call about being a joyful conservative, he spoke often of his wife and sons, who he said may take the next semester off from college to help him campaign—Walker deliberately stepping right on top of the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-candidate tripwire that Bush has so carefully avoided. He bragged of doing his shopping at Kohl’s, comparing their frequent buyers program to his own theory on taxation. National security should be renamed “safety,” he said, noting that as the father of two boys he was very much worried that ISIS would come to our shores.
And while Bush speaks in fully digested policy brief paragraphs, often saying the word “comma” in his remarks, Walker falls back on vague talking points, pausing after he jabs the president to nod his head and let the audience cheer him on.
And cheer they did. Bill Smith, (“Honestly! That’s my name!”) a retired engineer in the audience, said Bush’s immigration plan would be “suicidal” for the GOP since “68 percent of new immigrants vote Democratic.”
Smith said he held his nose and voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney, but even if Bush was the nominee, he wouldn’t do so again.
“I despise and detest his position on amnesty. He should run as a Democrat. That is what he is.”
“Bush is radioactive,” he added. “I wouldn’t cross the street to see him.”