MANCHESTER, New Hampshire – Can Donald Trump be a winner again?
That’s the question New Hampshire will answer next week with their primary, eight days after the candidate who promised to bring “so much winning you’re going to get sick of it” lost in Iowa.
Will Trump’s second-place finish threaten his “yuge” lead here in the Granite State?
New Hampshire voters don’t take their cues from Iowans and losing in the Hawkeye State is usually a pre-requisite for candidates who want to win here – no Republican has ever captured both states -- but this is far from a typical race. There’s never been a candidate whose brand was so focused on the ability to win at everything, who has spent the year enjoying significant polling leads all year.
“His aura of invincibility was severely damaged,” Ryan Williams, a Jeb Bush supporter, told MSNBC.
“Some of the shine came off,” New Hampshire RNC committeewoman Juliana Bergeron said.
To hear Trump tell it, everything is going swimmingly: On stage here in New Hampshire Tuesday, he was triumphant and declared his second-place finish in Iowa a success. He pushed a new narrative – one that directly contradicts months of his own boasting – that he never thought he’d win anyway.
But amid the spin are admissions of wrongdoing: “In retrospect, we could have done much better with the ground game,” Trump said on Fox News' "Hannity."
“I would have funded a better ground game, but people told me our ground game was fine,” he added on "Morning Joe."
Getting voters out – particularly as many of his voters have never voted before – is tough in a state like Iowa, where caucuses can take hours, but it's just as important in New Hampshire.
“His Iowa organization was exposed as nothing more than a Potemkin village,” Wiliams said, noting that he hasn’t seen the same level of phone calls, door hangers, and visible pavement-stomping presence from Trump that other candidates are bringing to the Granite State.
But the campaign says the ground game is stronger here, and signs are beginning to show.
At the rally in Milford Tuesday night, volunteers were seen passing out fliers and encouraging people to get involved with the campaign’s enlisted base. While that’s a basic element of other candidate events, Trump’s rallies are usually about the man himself, and not the organization.
His campaign is hosting “Walkin’ & Talkin’ For Donald J Trump" events and the candidate himself is adding more appointments – including a Thursday meeting with local business owners – that are more fitting for New Hampshire voters who favor retail politics and small gatherings above the massive crowds that mark most of Trump's events.
Though his team started building their voter database this fall -- far later in the game than many rivals -- they boast that it's “huge” and stress that it includes a lot of new voters, and that they're in a state that allows same-day voter registration.
Still, they've got to get those new voters to the polls to register.
On Wednesday, the campaign told NBC News they have volunteers coming up from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Missouri to knock on doors and join some of the seven phone banks the campaign has set up around the state. They won’t offer the numbers that many campaigns tout as signs of a ground game, saying only that they’ve made “thousands” of calls and knocked on “thousands” of doors.
And while Trump is still, of course, the favorite and front-runner -- he’s polling 20 points ahead of the rest of the field – the Iowa loss may also open the doors to a lot more opposition.
Liz Mair, the GOP strategist behind the Make America Awesome PAC that’s attacking Trump said she’s seen a surge of support for her efforts. They’ve launched an ad calling Trump out for “his real record” -- exaggerating his wealth and four bankruptcies to name a few – that will air through the primary. Strategist Katie Packer launched another effort a few weeks ago, hounding Trump with negative advertising in the final days; she told Politico she’s seen a surge of donors after Monday night’s loss, too.
Above all, sources stress that a lot can change a week before the primary – particularly in a state that’s known for breaking late.
“We have a lot of people who won’t make up their mind till this coming weekend,” committeewoman Bergeron said. “You can see complete shifts. We’re going to be getting a lot of mailers, we have a debate coming up on Saturday and people are just digesting what happened in Iowa, and people are dropping out.”
Additional reporting by Katy Tur, Ali Vitali, and Anthony Terrell.