Jeb Bush was engaging in some armchair psychiatry. It was Saturday morning in Bedford, New Hampshire, and he found himself surrounded by 700 people, in the cafeteria of McKelvie Intermediate School on Liberty Hill Road, when the conversation turned to the inevitable: Donald Trump.
A voter had risen up to condemn Trump for mocking those with disabilities back in November, when the mogul got onstage at a rally and curled his hands up to his chest to mimic the way a reporter’s congenital joint condition afflicted him.
“It’s just ridiculous,” Bush said, “a sign of deep insecurity. I’m not a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, but the guy needs therapy!”
The room burst into laughter, and then applause.
The next day, at a different middle school an hour further east in Hampton, Chris Christie was making a few hundred people laugh at Trump’s expense, too.
A man, dressed in a Patriots jersey, asked Christie to explain why people should support him over the former reality star.
“The core of my criticism of Mr. Trump is this,” Christie said, “How? How?”
“He’s gonna build a wall and it’s gonna be an—” Christie changed the tone of his voice to impersonate The Donald—“incredible, beautiful marvelous wall. An incredible wall! The wall is gonna be unbelievable. The wall is gonna have a door, the door is gonna open and close and good people come in, the bad people go out. It’s gonna be an amazing wall. It’s gonna be a beautiful wall—and the Mexicans are gonna pay for the wall because Trump says they’ll pay for the wall.”
It took seven months, but on the eve of the primary here, the traditional—“establishment”—politicians vying to be the alternative to Trump have begun to figure out how to make the case against him. Christie claims his proposals are only executable in the fantastical world of reality TV. Rubio indirectly dismisses him with snark. Bush argues that Trump is too much of a loose cannon and too impolite. And Kasich meets his causticity with real, heart-tugging tears.
But is it too late?
“At this point,” Roger Stone said Monday, “it just looks like sour grapes.”
Stone is a longtime Trump confidant and, until August when he left amid infighting, an adviser to his campaign. He compared the candidates auditioning to be Trump’s primary rival to “children muttering.”
“These guys can’t get out of their own way,” Stone said. “They’re so busy attacking each other that they’re letting Trump go right up the center.”
None of them have what it would take to defeat him, he said, because, “You can’t take on the frontrunner until you’ve moved up in the food chain. None of these guys can break out of the pack.”
Trump’s campaign was supposed to collapse on its own, under the pressure that comes with alienating entire races, religions, and fans of the Oreo cookie. It didn’t happen, of course, and as he grew stronger, stories materialized about a supposed movement of candidates, billionaires, and super PACs that were joining together to take him down with their collective brainpower and mountains of cash. But that didn’t happen either.
Instead, the candidates have revolved around Trump as he has remade the Republican Party in his image. With the exception of Kasich, who ran a few anti-Trump ads to little fanfare, they mostly focused their attention on diminishing Rubio, who, at least until his debate performance on Saturday, seemed to have the best chance at becoming the establishment favorite. Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting Jeb Bush, produced countless ads smearing him. They ran one billboard, and a bad one at that, against Trump.
But now the candidates seem to realize that time is running out. New Hampshire has historically helped to clarify the race. In 2008 and 2012, John McCain and Mitt Romney, both eventual nominees, won here. And as of this writing, Trump leads the polls by 15 points. If he wins, what then?
Katie Packer Gage, a Republican consultant who worked for Romney’s campaign, said that what the establishment candidates are doing now is not enough. “I think the negative comments don’t mean much if there isn’t a comprehensive attack on TV, in the mail, phones, etc.,” she said. “What they are saying is meant to get headlines and to look like an attack but it’s not.”
Kasich tried a different approach. When a questioner at a VFW hall here mentioned Trump’s mocking of people with disabilities, Kasich neglected to go after him. Instead, his eyes welled up and he embraced the woman who asked the question in an emotional hug.
And while speaking at BAE Systems in Nashua on Monday, Rubio touted the diversity of the Republican field—noting, with a combination of grimace and smirk, the presence of “the most talented businessman in the world.”
But it’s Bush and Christie who are leveling direct assaults.
On Saturday, Bush said, “You’re gonna ‘bomb the S-H-blank-blank out of ISIS’? Really? Is that a serious thought?
“That kind of talk,” he said, “endangers the lives” of American soldiers. “When a candidate says, we’re gonna ban all Muslims, how hard will it be to build a coalition of Muslim nations to be able to destroy ISIS? We’re living in dangerous times.”
In the end, he said, “Strength is not measured by how you insult others and push them down to make yourself look better. Strength is not measured by the volume of your voice or the outlandish things you say; strength is measured by the respect you earn because people know you have the right stuff.”
For all of Bush’s analysis of Trump’s psyche, it was Christie who seemed to have come to some conclusions about him.
The crowd in Hampton loved his fast-paced Trump impersonation, and so he kept doing it. “When I become president the country is gonna get so wealthy, so amazingly wealthy and rich that we’re not gonna have to worry about Social Security,” he said.
Then he turned semi-serious. “How?”
“We’re all gonna get so rich that we’re not gonna have to worry about Social Security? How do you answer that? I’m opposed to that? Like, what do you say, right?”
He said he had one final story to convince people to “get off the Trump train”: He was the crime-fighting U.S. Attorney and he had taken his daughter to see Beauty and The Beast on Broadway. At the time, Jamie Lynn Sigler, who played Meadow on The Sopranos, was starring as Belle, and at intermission, another character from the series made an appearance. James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano, stopped Christie to shake his hand. He pulled him close and he whispered, “You know it’s all make believe, right?”
“So,” Christie said, “I’m gonna say to you what Jim Gandolfini said to me: You know it’s all make believe, right? There’s no boardroom in New York where you look at people and say, ‘You’re fired.’ It’s television. It’s all make believe. And if you think that forms the basis of experience to run a government, as complex as the United States government...” he trailed off.
“Bravado, by itself,” he said, “is not a plan.”
—with additional reporting by Tim Mak