NASHUA, New Hampshire -- It’s a formula as old as time: Tack to the base in the primaries, tack to the center in the general election. In New Hampshire, however, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush seems to be making good on his plan to succeed with a “lose the primary to win the general” strategy.
In a trio of events headlined by Bush’s appearance Friday afternoon at the New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit here, Bush defended his conservative record as governor from skeptical Republicans while simultaneously bucking conservatives on a new pair of issues. “My record is a conservative one,” Bush told an audience member who asked whether he was a “Republican in name only” at his Nashua event. “It’s an I’m-not-kidding conservative one and it’s a record of accomplishment.”
The stakes were high for the Nashua gathering, which serves a jumping off point for the state’s 2016 primary. In addition to Bush, who has still not formally announced a White House run, speakers on Friday included New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, New York Rep. Pete King, and Ambassador John Bolton, all of who are considering presidential runs. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who announced his campaign on Monday, spoke in the evening and Saturday’s scheduled lineup includes Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and businesswoman Carly Fiorina.
Bush had already made plenty of news before he took the stage, however, partly by tweaking the GOP’s conservative wing – already upset with his positions on immigration and education -- on the environment and Obama’s attorney general pick as well. He also courted trouble by walking into a widespread conspiracy theory on the right regarding the Affordable Care Act.
The most surprising turn came earlier Friday at a breakfast event at St. Anselm College, where Bush said “we need to work with the rest of the world to negotiate a way to reduce carbon emissions." The comments marked a big shift from his previous criticism of climate science. While Bush criticized Obama’s environmental regulations as an economic drain, his comments put him to the left of the Republican field, which has tacked hard towards climate skepticism since 2008.
The bar may be low, but Bush's comments were enough to prompt Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate, which spent tens of millions of dollars challenging Republican candidates on climate issues in 2014, to lavish praise on Bush for “demonstrating leadership" in a statement.
Wading in sensitive territory again, he suggested requiring Medicare recipients to sign advance directives dealing with end-of-life care to avoid a repeat of his unsuccessful fight as governor to keep the late Terri Schiavo on a feeding tube amid a dispute between family members of her wishes. While not a conventionally left-right issue, a far weaker bipartisan proposal to encourage greater use of advance directives during the 2009 health care debate gave rise to the famous "death panels" myth in tea party circles, prompting Democrats to ultimately drop the measure from the final bill.
On Thursday at a town hall in Concord, Bush came out in support of confirming Obama’s nominee for attorney general Loretta Lynch, whose nomination has been held up for months due to conservative opposition in the senate.
While Bush paired his greens with plenty of red meat attacks on the Obama administration, the overall trend was striking. It’s not every day a candidate in a tough GOP primary gets a pat on the back from a billionaire progressive philanthropist.
New Hampshire is critical to Bush’s path to the White House in particular as conservative Iowa, the first caucus in the nation, is expected to be a tough climb for the establishment front-runner. By contrast, New Hampshire Republicans went for Mitt Romney and John McCain in their last two primaries, two candidates who relied on the state’s moderate lean to power them towards the nomination.
Unlike the 2012 cycle, where Romney led end-to-end thanks in part to his strong personal ties to the state, nobody enjoys clear front-runner status in the polls. The leader in a handful of recent surveys, per RealClearPolitics’ average, is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with just 19.2% support and at least a half dozen rivals within plausible striking distance.
"It's as wide open a race as I've ever seen,” Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, one of the state’s prize endorsements, told msnbc.
In addition to Walker’s early strength, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is working to court independents, who made up 47% of the GOP primary vote in 2012, with his unorthodox platform and he and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will each make a play for the “Live free or die” state’s significant libertarian base.
"I don't see a coronation coming my way, trust me," Bush told the Nashua audience member who questioned his conservative bonafides on Friday.
Christie, who spoke on Friday, is staking his fading presidential dreams on New Hampshire, where supporters hope his blunt town hall appearances will prove a 2016 version of McCain’s “straight talk express.” In Nashua, he touted his new proposal to cut Social Security and Medicare spending through means testing and raising the retirement age as proof of his truth telling ways. “Why would I talk about those things if they weren’t true?” Christie said. There is no political advantage to talking about those issues.”
Sure enough, Huckabee, who will address the summit Saturday, issued a blistering attack on Christie’s plan, arguing it would take benefits away from future seniors who had already paid into the system. “I would say it’s not just no,” Huckabee told the Daily Caller on Friday. “It’s you-know-what no.”
Rubio's appearance on Friday was his most high profile since announcing his candidacy on Monday in Miami. He's a candidate to watch: A Mason-Dixon poll this week showed him surging to a tie with Bush in their home state and his top financial backers told Reuters on Friday his allies have already secured $40 million to support him through a super PAC.
"I believe with all my heart that we are on the verge of another American century," Rubio said in his speech. "I believe with all my heart that America's greatest days are around the corner."
Rubio told a questioner concerned about Iran nuclear negotiations that Obama made a mistake by ever entering into talks rather than waiting for international sanctions to force the regime's capitulation. "Here's the hard truth We may have to decide at some point what is worse -- a military strike against Iran or a [nuclear armed] Iran."