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Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee face off at New Hampshire Freedom Summit

Likely Republican presidential candidates, including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee gathered in New Hampshire this weekend.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speaks during the inaugural Freedom Summit meeting, April 12, 2014, in Manchester, N.H.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speaks during the inaugural Freedom Summit meeting, April 12, 2014, in Manchester, N.H.

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The Republican presidential primary is up and running in New Hampshire, where conservative prospects lined up in Manchester Saturday for the first cattle call of the 2016 cycle.

Speakers at the New Hampshire Freedom Summit, which was sponsored by Citizens United and Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity, included Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, all of whom would be top tier presidential contenders should they run. 

Donald Trump also spoke. 

Huckabee seemed especially determined to show he could compete for conservative votes against politicians like Paul and Cruz, who have each earned a devoted following among tea party activists. While the two senators mostly stuck to their usual talking points, Huckabee offered an extra large serving of red meat.

"My gosh, I'm beginning to think that there’s more freedom in North Korea sometimes than there is in the United States,” he said in his remarks. “When I go to the airport, I have to get in the surrender position, people put hands all over me, and I have to provide photo ID and a couple of different forms and prove that I really am not going to terrorize the airplane -- but if I want to go vote I don't need a thing.”

The 2016 campaign will kick off in earnest shortly after midterm elections, when the major candidates have to at least unofficially signal a run or risk losing out on endorsements, donors, and staff. Major players like Jeb Bush on the Republican side and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side have already said they’ll make their final decisions by the end of the year.  

But, as Saturday’s event demonstrated, the unofficial primary of forging early connections with voters and elected officials in key caucus and primary states is already well under way. In a state where voters and elected officials expect to personally grill presidential candidates – often several times – before making up their mind, it’s never too early to start.

New Hampshire has a reputation for boosting relative moderates in recent years compared to the socially conservative Iowa caucus that precedes it. Granite State voters went decisively for John McCain in 2000 and 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. There’s also a libertarian streak (“Live Free or Die” being your state slogan will do that) and former Congressman Ron Paul came in second place in 2012, one of his strongest showings.

Rand Paul stands to inherit his father’s considerable activist network, which could give him a leg up over the competition.

At a New Hampshire GOP rally on Friday and in his speech to Saturday’s summit, Paul argued that the party needed to bring in young voters, through a focus on Internet privacy rights.

“If we want to grow our movement bigger, that message resonates with young people,” he said.

Paul added Saturday that the party “cannot be the party of fat cats, rich people, and Wall Street” even as he warned Republicans not to shy away from advocating tax cuts for wealthy Americans to spur job growth.

Paul has a relatively pragmatic streak compared to his father and has tried – with mixed results – to avoid the elder Paul’s habit of allying with fringe groups. Supporters hope that this will give him a higher ceiling of support with Republicans who might have dismissed his father as too extreme.

“I think Ron Paul’s vote will split between Rand Paul and Ted Cruz,” New Hampshire state representative David Murotake, who helped organize support for Paul’s 2012 campaign, told msnbc. “What I’m delighted to see is how many non-Ron Paul supporters are looking at Rand.”

As Murotake noted, Cruz has some overlap with Paul in the liberty movement, but his bigger emphasis on social conservatism might be a barrier in the more secular New Hampshire GOP. 

“He's so far to the right,” Patti Betti, who attended Paul’s rally Friday, said of Cruz. “I agree with the constitutionalism he believes in, but I'm more for electability.” 

Cruz’s speech at the Freedom Summit, like Paul’s, stressed opposition to NSA monitoring of phone and Internet communications as well as his leadership role in opposing Obama's health care law. 

"The biggest divide we got in this country, it's not between Democrats and Republicans," Cruz said, "it's between entrenched politicians in both parties in Washington and the American people."

Asked by reporters whether the party needed to deemphasize social issues, however, Cruz and Paul offered two very different answers that could provide the basis for a spirited 2016 debate.

“In my view, I think we should continue to defend the traditional three legs of the Republican stool: I am a fiscal conservative, I am a social conservative, I am a national security conservative,” Cruz said.

By contrast, Paul emphasized letting individual states work out their differences on social issues and added that the GOP should be open to dissenting views.

“I think that there really is room in the party for many different people,” he said. “I think there’s an arrogance to having absolute litmus tests.”

In addition to the big names were some dark horse contenders. Iowa Congressman Steve King, best known for his inflammatory rhetoric on immigration, told msnbc he wasn’t planning on running for president but his presence in New Hampshire suggested he might be worth keeping an eye on. King has little chance of winning, but by challenging his rivals day in and day out to renounce “amnesty,” he might achieve his policy aims of blocking another attempt at reform in Congress – much to the horror of national party leaders worried about the Latino vote in 2016.

Unlike 2012, when Sarah Palin considered a presidential run and Michele Bachmann briefly looked like a contender in her own campaign, few women have been mentioned in the top tier of contenders. That might leave an opening for conservative Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, who has attracted little attention up to this point but spoke at Saturday’s event and is reportedly exploring a presidential bid. You might remember Blackburn from her recent televised debate with Bill Nye "the Science Guy" over climate science. 

In her speech on Saturday, Blackburn took on Democratic charges of a “war on women” based on reproductive rights, saying female voters were  instead more concerned with pocketbook issues.

“Women aren’t a cheap date,” she said. “Women want a little bit more out of life than contraceptives.” 

While Freedom Summit brought no small number of likely GOP hopefuls, many of the biggest names – mainly the more establishment politicians – were absent. Any path to victory for New Jersey governor Chris Christie would run directly through New Hampshire, where his northeastern political style is more likely to connect with voters than in Iowa or South Carolina. However, his biggest selling point, electability, has been undercut in recent months by ongoing investigations into his administration’s role closing traffic lanes in Fort Lee, New Jersey in an alleged act of political retribution.

“There’s been a lot of trouble the last few months, but I still think he’s our strongest candidate,” Phil Boynton, president of the University of New Hampshire College Republicans, said about Christie in an interview. “He does well among women, Hispanics, all groups we need to improve with and I think it’s a blueprint for success.”

New Hampshire would also be critical to Bush, whose strong support for immigration reform and Common Core standards in education make Iowa less friendly terrain. 

As it stands, the Freedom Summit audience, which skewed conservative, booed Bush’s name when Trump brought up the ex-governor’s recent comment that some immigrants come to the country illegally as an "act of love” for their families. Several speakers also attacked Common Core.

Paul, for his part, defended Bush over the flap even as he added one “can’t simply sacrifice the rule of law” because immigrants have sympathetic motives.

“I think his remarks were well intentioned and I don’t fault him for that,” Paul said.