GOP establishment races to topple Trump in New Hampshire
Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Republican establishment candidates are locked in a mortal fight to win the state of New Hampshire – where failure, for some, could mark the end of their presidential ambitions.

As the outsider Donald Trump widens his lead over the Republican field in national polls, with less than six weeks until the first nominating contests begin, the more traditional candidates are shuttling frenetically around the critical early state.

“The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents,” the adage goes. And so four Republicans currently splitting the mainstream vote – Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich – criss-crossed the state ahead of the Christmas holiday seeking to distinguish themselves from a crowded field of 13 candidates.

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Rubio vowed to be a unifying figure amid challenging times both at home and abroad, while acknowledging the disillusionment that has driven voters into the arms of outsider candidates who have never held elected office.

“I know that times are tough,” the Florida senator told voters at a town hall in the riverside city of Berlin on Tuesday. “I know that people are frustrated and that this is a time to be angry about the direction of our country. But not just to be angry. This is a time to act. This is a time of urgency,” he said.

A few hours later, at his own town hall just down the street, Bush also emphasized the necessity of the moment – but as part of an appeal to voters to reject candidates he dubbed as unserious.

Standing inside a garage classroom at a community college, the former Florida governor began with a confession that – from the very outset – he had served as a particular foil to the bombastic arrogance that has defined Trump’s candidacy.

“I don’t know everything. I’m not the biggest personality on stage,” Bush said. “We have a few candidates – I won’t mention their names, you all know who I’m talking about – that don’t pass the humility test.”

“Humility is a sign of strength, not weakness,” he added.

New Hampshire will not hold its primary, the first in the nation, until 9 February. But with its potential to significantly winnow the field, the sense of urgency among those who’ve placed nearly all of their bets on the Granite State was palpable.

“You are the most powerful people in America,” Christie, the New Jersey governor, told a crowd in Exeter. “You are going to take this race from 14 people to four or five. After you vote, 10 of us go home.”

The implications of a strong showing in New Hampshire are especially dire for candidates like Bush, Christie and Kasich, who have spent a disproportionate amount of time wooing the state’s pragmatic-minded voters in the hope that they will bring order to a dramatic race where conventional rules have thus far fallen flat.

The three governors all hoped to have distinguished themselves as Washington outsiders with a record of getting things done – in Florida, New Jersey and Ohio. Yet they are all averaging in single digits, trailing a national top-tier that increasingly consists of Trump, Rubio and Texas senator Ted Cruz.

But the race remains unexpectedly open at this juncture, with most New Hampshire voters attesting to the fact that they have yet to firmly commit to a candidate.

Beverly Kempton, of Alton, said she was leaning toward Kasich after attending the Ohio governor’s town hall in Rochester on Monday. But in the next breath, she named Rubio and Bush as other contenders on her shortlist. She had but one criteria: Anyone not named Trump.

“I don’t understand it. He is rude, he’s nasty,” Kempton said. “I don’t think he knows anything – except money.”

The real estate mogul nonetheless holds a commanding lead in New Hampshire, with numbers inching toward 30% despite a scarce presence on the campaign trail. It was a trend Bush appeared intent on reversing, fresh off the heels of a debate in Las Vegas where the two repeatedly sparred.

“He’s wrong,” Bush said of Trump – on the threat posed by the Islamic State, on banning Muslims from the United States, and on the merits of being praised by Russian president Vladimir Putin. “These are serious times. We need a serious leader.”

It was one of several times Bush brought up Trump unprompted, eventually drawing the former governor into a moment of self-awareness – in a race where Trump is sucking up most of the oxygen, candidates should at least bar him from their own events.

“I promise I won’t talk about Trump again,” Bush said, only to break the rule moments later.

Elsewhere, Christie zeroed in on a more immediate threat to his prospects: Rubio, the fresh-faced Florida senator who in recent months has steadily risen in the polls, ticked up in congressional endorsements and drawn the backing of influential high-dollar donors.

Christie, whose race was thought to be over when he was relegated to the undercard debate in November, has been given another look in large part due to his dogged campaigning in New Hampshire. The governor secured the endorsement of the influential New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper, and has used his trademark personal style to positive effect.

A clip of Christie emotionally discussing substance abuse, a crisis that has torn its way across New Hampshire, went viral with millions of views. In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, his reflections on his role as a US attorney in the aftermath of 9/11 have also carried more potency.

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This week, Christie, on a four-day bus tour which took him from Al’s Automotive shop in Exeter to sports bars and town halls across the state, showed a more aggressive tone in taking on his opponents – with a marked focus on Rubio.

The governor launched into an attack on Rubio for missing a Senate vote last week on the $1.15tn budget, a jibe he repeated in a pair of television interviews on Tuesday before going after Rubio’s style of campaigning.

“We’ve been looking for Marco, but we can’t find him,” Christie said on MSNBC. “We’ve had the bus all over New Hampshire. We haven’t been able to find him. We understand he did a very quick town hall here and then left to go back to Madison Avenue in New York.”

Rubio was, in fact, in the midst of a three-day swing of his own through New Hampshire when Christie made his comments. But the senator’s rivals have seized on a slew of press reports in recent weeks that have questioned his strategy of holding a lighter campaign schedule and ground operation in the early states when compared with some of the other candidates.

Related: Rubio's charged but nuanced rhetoric on national security excites GOP voters

Rubio largely ignored the criticism while barnstorming the state with his wife and children in tow, choosing instead to stick with the familiar themes of his campaign. In a series of town halls before enthusiastic crowds, the senator placed an emphasis on national security and boosting defense, detailed his plans for higher education, and touted his efforts to dismantle Obamacare in the US Senate.

At each event, he fielded a wide range of questions from the audience for over an hour – on topics ranging from climate change to criminal justice and the refugee crisis – interspersing detailed discussions of policy with occasional humor.

After receiving two questions in the same day on the embargo against Cuba, for example, Rubio quipped, “This is a long way to travel to talk about Cuba!”

He continued to take subtle shots at Cruz, with whom Rubio has locked horns of late on immigration and national security, although never mentioning the Texas senator by name. In particular, Rubio noted that a strategy against ISIS must be more substantial than carpet bombing the terrorist group “until sand glows in the dark” – a reference to what Cruz has vowed to do as president.

He also made several retail stops – at a diner, a general store and a candy shop – taking questions from patrons, chatting up the owners about local business and competition, and keeping an eye on his young children.

Despite the fixation in the media on his commitment to the campaign trail, Rubio has risen to second place in New Hampshire behind Trump. Voters who came to see the senator indicated they were still shopping around, and an increased presence by Rubio in the coming weeks could be enough to persuade them in his direction.

“I have more interest in him now than I did before I came here,” said Troy Allen, of Conway, who was also impressed by Bush at a recent event. “I think he hit pretty much everything – I’m leaning toward Rubio, but I’ll make my decision on who are the top two or three standing when it’s time to vote.” © Guardian News and Media 2015