DOVER, New Hampshire – Jeb Bush embraced the Live Free or Die state’s freewheeling politics. Scott Walker mostly bunkered down in private meetings. Ted Cruz was the keynote speaker at a county dinner that featured an auction of the likely candidates’ neckties. Rick Perry toured the far north of the state, trying in relative obscurity to resurrect himself. Over the weekend in New Hampshire, it was clear: The 2016 Republican presidential primary is wide open – and well underway, even without declared candidates.
“I’m just kinda wandering around, learning a lot and having fun doing it,” Bush told reporters late Friday night, standing outside a supporter’s home in a suburban neighborhood with feet of snow piled along the driveway.
“These are rather obtuse questions for a Friday night in New Hampshire,” he said as he gamely fielded inquiries about his positions on health care, education, the renewable fuel standard and other issues.
He kept insisting: No, he is not a candidate – but still, he kept acting like one.
“I’ll answer it in the third person,” he told an attendee at a small business roundtable who asked what Bush would do as president to take on Iran and the Islamic State. Then Bush launched into a fairly detailed description of what his policy to fight ISIS would look like.Between question-and-answer sessions with business leaders, voters and reporters, Bush held a series of private meetings with key New Hampshire leaders and activists – sometimes overlapping with Walker, whose two-day itinerary consisted almost entirely of private meetings.
Both Bush and Walker met with former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, the former chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush. Both met with the mayor of Manchester and with the president of the state Senate. Walker met with Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator who now lives in New Hampshire; Bush held a fundraiser for Sen. Kelly Ayotte. Both did interviews with the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper and with WMUR, the ABC affiliate in Manchester.
The itineraries highlighted how they find themselves in similar situations: Neither has run in New Hampshire before, and both have to build connections and knowledge of the state from the ground up in a way that’s not been the case in recent primary cycles. By January 2012, Mitt Romney had been running in New Hampshire for almost eight straight years; the last time Bush was even in the state for a political purpose was 15 years ago. Most recent state polls show Walker and Bush neck-and-neck for the lead – but just barely, as the rest of a crowded field is close behind.
But that’s about where the similarities between Bush and Walker end, at least on the ground in New Hampshire.
Walker held just one public event over the course of two days in the state, speaking on Saturday to a grassroots training event that the New Hampshire GOP organized. He took a handful of questions from voters, talked mostly in broad strokes; when one asked if he supported abolishing the federal income tax, Walker wouldn’t say yes or no – “sounds pretty tempting,” he allowed. But he didn’t plan to answer questions from the press, instead responding to allegations he’s changed positions on major issues only after he was taken by surprise and surrounded by reporters after his Saturday speech.
The charges are “just a narrative by other campaigns who are frustrated by the fact that we have a strong reputation,” Walker said.
Walker was also much quicker to go on offense against Bush, using the WMUR interview to go after the former Florida governor, 15 years his senior.
“I think to beat a name from the past, we need a name from the future. So a new fresh face helps provide a great contrast to Hillary Clinton,” Walker said.
And in his speech to voters Saturday, he offered this thinly veiled contrast: “I didn’t inherit fame or fortune,” he said. “I got the belief that in America, if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to do anything or be anything you want.”
Bush, by contrast, largely refused to be goaded into comparing himself with Walker. Asked if the Wisconsin governor was a frontrunner, Bush simply said he wasn’t yet a candidate. Asked if he believed Walker was a flip-flopper – an accusation that’s been leveled at Walker by many of his rivals in recent days – Bush first said, “I don’t know.”
Pressed on Walker’s immigration position, Bush finally allowed: “He’s changed his views on that, yeah.”
Bush also fully embraced the New Hampshire ethos of free-for-all retail politicking and questioning, enduring question after question from voters during a packed house party in Dover – a strategic decision aimed at both voters and the press. He told key New Hampshire donors as much on Saturday night, according to a source in the room, saying that being open with the press and the public will ultimately provide a contrast with the buttoned-down Hillary Clinton, at this point the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Bush also took questions from reporters twice during his two-day trip, showing flashes of irritation only when asked about how he might differ from his father and his brother if he decides to campaign for president.
“By doing events like this,” he said Friday night, simply, before looking around for the next question.