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The intense GOP contest to be 'not insane' in New Hampshire

For Republican presidential candidates exasperated by Donald Trump’s rise, the fight is overwhelmingly centered on New Hampshire.

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire – In the 1970s, a comedy group called The Firesign Theater launched a fictional candidate for president named George Papoon with a catchy pledge: Papoon for president. You know he's not insane.

The joke, of course, was that Papoon was off-the-wall bonkers. But his “not insane” slogan could perfectly fit a class of Republican candidates exasperated by Donald Trump’s rise and jostling to become the last best alternative.

The fight is overwhelmingly centered on New Hampshire, a state whose independent streak has made Trump a strong front-runner, and whose centrist streak has made it the obvious launching pad for the mainstream GOP contenders who tend not to do as well among Iowa’s staunchly conservative caucus-goers.

New Hampshire’s primary is scheduled for Feb. 9, eight days after Iowa.

RELATED: For Bernie Sanders, it's New Hampshire or bust

Right now, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and a handful of lower-tier candidates, like Carly Fiorina, are running essentially the same game plan: Camp out in the Granite State and corner the market on voters turned off by the Trump brand by touting their own experience, gravitas, and mental stability. (Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is an equally important player, but appears less invested in going all-in on New Hampshire.)  

Their plans all contrast with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is riding Trump’s wake with obsequious praise for the real estate titan and focusing primarily on Iowa to jumpstart his run.

“Jeb, Christie, Kasich, Rubio. Whoever wins New Hampshire – or, if Trump wins, whoever comes in second -- is probably going to be best positioned going forward,” Fred Malek, an unaligned Republican fundraiser, told MSNBC.

“Jeb, Christie, Kasich, Rubio. Whoever wins New Hampshire – or, if Trump wins, whoever comes in second -- is probably going to be best positioned going forward."'

In theory, a contender from the not insane camp who knocks out the others in New Hampshire will have a strong chance at the nomination by uniting whatever’s left of the GOP establishment against candidates like Trump, Cruz or Dr. Ben Carson, all of whom party elites view as unelectable, too kooky to govern, or both.

But right now the not insane candidates are splitting the vote, raising the prospect that none of them achieve the liftoff needed to stop Trump and Cruz from taking over the race. Some Republicans are also concerned that the new environment of unlimited Super PAC donations could keep more candidates in the race waiting for a lucky break in later states.

It’s a fun-house mirror image of the 2012 New Hampshire primary, where establishment favorite Mitt Romney locked down support early and the opposition never settled around one challenger. The latest surveys from the state show the field tightly clustered with none drawing even half of Trump’s support – a RealClearPolitics average puts Trump at 28.7%, Rubio at 12%, Christie at 10.3%, Cruz at 9.7%, Kasich at 7.3%, and Bush at 7.0%.

“Everyone is kind of huddled together in our lane,” John Weaver, chief strategist for Kasich, told MSNBC. “I’d say right now it’s a jump ball between us, Rubio, and Christie with Jeb a little bit back.”

The nuclear button argument

With the Paris and San Bernardino attacks fresh in voters’ minds and Trump staying strong, the not insane crowd is running on versions of the same argument: Do you really want that guy with their finger on the nuclear button?

“It's not about the blowhards out there just saying stuff, that's not a program, that's not a plan,” Bush told voters at a law firm here on Tuesday while condemning Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. “This is serious business and we shouldn't along the way do exactly what these radical Islamic terrorists want.”

Bush also chided Trump, unprompted, for not knowing the name of Qaseim Solemaimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Americans, Bush argued, are “going to want to know who's going to sit behind the big desk, not necessarily who's fueling my frustrations.”

RELATED: Half of New Hampshire’s Democratic state reps. back Clinton

Right to Rise, the behemoth super PAC supporting Bush, debuted a multi-million dollar ad buy this month attacking Trump as “impulsive and reckless” on national security while also taking shots at Rubio for missing Senate votes and Cruz for voting to reform NSA surveillance. A recent Politico report suggested that Right to Rise strategists were considering a $75 million scorched earth campaign aimed at disqualifying everyone but Trump in order to leave Bush as the only viable backup.

New Day for America, the super PAC supporting Kasich, has almost single-mindedly devoted itself to Trump-bashing. "We have to paint that picture of what Donald Trump would look like as commander-in-chief, which is scary and ineffective," New Day strategist Matt David told NBC News earlier this month.

Pressed on that point by MSNBC, Kasich insisted the super PAC ads were independent of his campaign and said he wished he could get back to TV spots that showcased his biography. But the outside campaign is clearly taking its cues from Kasich’s own regular rants about the state of the GOP. (“Do you know how crazy this election is? Let me tell you something: I’ve about had it with these people,” he said in an October howler that kicked off the current phase.)

"We have to paint that picture of what Donald Trump would look like as commander-in-chief, which is scary and ineffective."'

For Christie, whose relentless campaigning in New Hampshire has paid off with a return to polling relevance, the not insane argument was on full display at a town hall in Wolfeboro on Friday -- even as he insisted he had no plans to attack Trump or anyone else.

“It is now time to pick a person who can fulfill that first and most important task of the presidency: to protect the safety and security of the American people,” Christie said. “That is not for on-the-job training, everybody. That’s not for reality TV stars. “

He confessed to the crowd that even he was “entertained” by the early race and its “colorful characters.” But that time had passed.

“Showtime is over everybody,” Christie said. “The world has come to New Hampshire, because showtime is over.”

The thing about sanity

Here’s the thing about running on not insane: It’s not fun.

Even as those candidates sharpen their arguments against rivals they say are dangerously unqualified to be president and their supporters spend millions to attack them as such, the frustration with Trump’s continued success is palpable.

You can feel it on the trail with Bush. He began one campaign day at an AARP panel on entitlement reform, where he expounded on his plan to partially privatize Medicare and gradually raise the Social Security retirement age while increasing the minimum benefit for poorer seniors.

“It’s a real joy to be here and it’s particularly a joy because we're going to talk about policy,” Bush said at the beginning.

RELATED: The GOP establishment's front-runner nightmare

Normally it would be a throwaway line, but the audience burst into applause. They knew what Bush knew: This event was unlikely to make news. Not after Trump had proposed a total ban on Muslim entry into the United States the day before.

An hour later at a Q&A with a local law firm, Bush paused in the middle of a thoughtful answer about the Islamic State, the state of democracy in Tunisia and Libya, and the proper use of special forces, to grumble that the issue was unlikely to get attention “because there’s another subject the press is more interested in today.”

Sure enough, reporters peppered him with question after questions afterwards about Trump. Bush issued yet another fiery denunciation of Trump, while complaining to reporters that the billionaire was “playing you guys like a fine Stradivarius violin.”

The next day, Bush was asked a softball question at a young professionals event about which historical figures – living or dead -- he’d bring to a White House party. “I wouldn’t invite Donald Trump,” Bush replied.

No need for the invite, Trump was already throwing a wild bash in Bush’s head.

By Thursday, Bush’s frustrations had boiled over into a primal scream to Business Insider, in which he complained Trump’s ideas were so inflammatory that even his campaign threatened national security – and that the media covered them too much.

“They guy is not serious,” Bush said. “He's not a serious person and he cannot be commander-in-chief. He doesn't have plans, this is all, this is all dog whistle talk. This is to provoke anger. This is to generate massive attention to him. It's not about a serious plan. Is that a serious plan in all reality? Of course it's not, and he'll backtrack and say ‘Oh, I didn't mean it that way and you guys are wrong,’ and he'll disparage people along the way, but he got what he wanted. He got 72 hours of complete attention by the media that are basically his lap dog.”

It’s not just Bush. On Thursday, Kasich smiled his way through the same young professionals series, where he recounted his favorite bands (Linkin Park, Foo Fighters, and "OK Computer"-era Radiohead all came up). It was all laughs – until MSNBC asked him about Trump.

“You know, I made a big speech yesterday on foreign policy, how to deal with ISIS, what to do about encryption, how to protect our country and the questions are about somebody else,” Kasich complained.

RELATED: Clinton would trounce Trump, but lose to Rubio, Carson: NBC poll

Even Christie, currently at the high point of his campaign and scoring major endorsements in the state, can’t help but get annoyed.

“I have been trying … for months to get questions from the press, to get questions about anything other than Donald Trump,” Christie told reporters on a swing through the state Saturday.

“I have been trying … for months to get questions from the press, to get questions about anything other than Donald Trump."'

It’s easy to see why they’re upset. Over the course of three events in one day, Bush spoke confidently about dozens of policy matters: immigration (a topic he wrote a book on), the Iranian nuclear deal, drug policy, regulations, tax reform, government surveillance, veterans’ health care, and more. He lingered long after a town hall in Hooksett to try and convince a skeptical schoolteacher that the merit pay policy he implemented in Florida would have benefited her, laying out how minute rules and exceptions addressed her concerns. 

Both Christie and Kasich have been taking a similar approach: small, substantive, and intimate meetings with average voters. Ask New Hampshire politicos how to win the state and they’ll say Bush, Kasich, and Christie are doing things the right way.

So far, it hasn’t worked, and the main problem is a candidate whose events are political rock concerts that draw thousands. While the not insane cohort is busy courting endorsements from state legislators and business leaders, Trump’s supporters are petitioning to remove the New Hampshire GOP chairwoman for criticizing his proposed Muslim ban.  

On Friday, the Trump show rolled into town for a smaller event. The New England Police Benevolent Association announced it was backing Trump, who accepted the support at his event and pledged to issue an executive order instituting the death for anyone who kills a police officer. Like his rivals, he also had some words on national security.

“People have to be vigilant, people have to keep their eyes open, if they did that, you wouldn't have had the World Trade Center,” Trump said. “Of course if they did what I said, you would have had Osama bin Laden killed before he even got to the World Trade Center.”

The message and the stakes

The candidates may loathe positioning themselves in relation to “blowhards” as Bush described it, or “reality TV stars,” as Christie put it, but the Republicans they’re courting understand the message and the stakes. 

It’s common to hear New Hampshire Republicans at events featuring the not insane candidates say they’re choosing between some combination of Bush, Christie, Rubio, Kasich, and Fiorina.

In Salem this month, one man asked Kasich at a town hall how to get the “clowns off the stage.”

“Make sure I win New Hampshire and I’ll be the Republican nominee,” Kasich replied.

Chris Williams, CEO of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce and a co-host of the Life of the Party series, told MSNBC that he had narrowed his choice down to Fiorina, Rubio, and Kasich, with an eye toward which of the three can most effectively rescue the party from less qualified candidates.

“I liked Jeb a lot at the beginning, but I haven’t seen him demonstrate the wherewithal to survive this huge circus,” Williams said. Instead, he wanted someone “who not only can talk circles around [Trump] but will also be able to run circles around him organizationally.”

Adam LaCasse, a 39-year old legal administrator, told MSNBC he was undecided but is concerned the mainstream candidates will split the vote.

“The sad part about Trump is he spoils the conversation,” he said. “It would be nice if it was between sane candidates – Fiorina, Bush, anyone. He’s making a mockery of it.”

Republicans unnerved by Trump’s ongoing dominance, have comforted themselves with mantras that have carried them through past flirtations between the base and various unconventional candidates: Voters make up their mind late. Insurgent candidates fade before the end. The field will shrink once the first ballots are cast. 

“He’s not going to be the nominee,” Bush told a reporter when asked if he would support Trump if the frontrunner won the primaries.

“But if by some chance –“ the reporter continued before being interrupted.

“He’s not going to be the nominee,” Bush said.

Whatever you have to tell yourself to stay sane.