GOP contenders fight to stand out to New Hampshire voters

GWEN IFILL: The 2016 race for president moved into New Hampshire over the weekend, as announced and unannounced candidates descended on the Granite State apparently just to say hi.

Joining us for our regular politics Monday discussion tonight, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post and Tamara Keith of NPR.

While they were saying hi, Karen, while you were there, there was a string, especially of Republican candidates, who came through town. Who made the biggest impact?

KAREN TUMULTY, The Washington Post: It was — these guys and one woman, they didn't disagree with each other on anything, and the degree to which they were taking shots at each other, they were very veiled, very indirect.

So, by the end of the weekend, where there were 17 candidates that I counted…

GWEN IFILL: Wow.

KAREN TUMULTY: … it really was, I think, just pretty much of a blur for this room full of 600 activists and party leaders in New Hampshire.

GWEN IFILL: So, for anybody who has been under a political rock for the last several years, Tamara Keith, let's remind people why everyone goes to New Hampshire. It's for this first-in-the-nation summit and everyone is lining up support.

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: Yes.

And this big event, sort of this cattle call event, is not very New Hampshire, actually. The real New Hampshire is going to people's living rooms, and going to diners and going to coffee shops and they all sort of did those events around the periphery of this cattle call.

But when there are 17, 19 of them, it's really hard to stand out when you each get 30 minutes at a cattle call. And New Hampshire voters love this. New Hampshire Republicans love this contrast where they can say, look at this amazing competition we're having and we're not going to make up our minds, we're going to meet every single one of them, we're going to wait it out, and compare that to the Democrats, where there's a coronation. They love that.

GWEN IFILL: Now, we're looking at Scott Walker here. And the reason why I'm curious about him is because today we hear that he may have the inside track in what we call the Koch primary, which is to say the big Republican fund-raisers, the Koch brothers.

There was an event in New York today where one of the — when David Koch said, I'm not going to tell you who you should vote for, but it ought to be Scott — who you should write a check to, but it ought to be Scott Walker.

KAREN TUMULTY: There is a lot of interest in Scott Walker, because people think of the Republican primary as being in brackets. They're the conservative bracket, the establishment bracket, the evangelical bracket.

And Scott Walker seems to have some appeal to all of these. The Koch brothers' reported support today doesn't necessarily mean that this gigantic organization of theirs is going to support him, but the interest in Scott Walker is so intense that at that event there was a wedding going on in another ballroom…

GWEN IFILL: In New Hampshire.

KAREN TUMULTY: In New Hampshire in that hotel.

The bride and groom left their own wedding reception to come over and meet Scott Walker and pose with pictures.

GWEN IFILL: Only in New Hampshire, perhaps.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about Jeb Bush, because he's kind of running against ghosts of Bushes past in New Hampshire.

TAMARA KEITH: Yes. And he was asked in New Hampshire whether he was on his way to a coronation or whether he felt like he was the establishment guy who had all the money.

And he said, well, you know, if I had this all sewn up, why are all these other people here? I think that New Hampshire is very important for him, in part because he is trying to lower expectations about Iowa. New Hampshire is sort of critical to his path to the nomination. And so he was there trying to stand out amongst all these other people who were also there.

GWEN IFILL: Marco Rubio, actually as the newest person in the Republican in the race, what was he doing there?

KAREN TUMULTY: He was very well-received. He's very eloquent, very attractive, but in the sort of outside chatter, I heard a number of Republican activists, as they talked among themselves, say, you know, he looks awfully young. Maybe…

GWEN IFILL: He's 43.

KAREN TUMULTY: He's 43. And he's, by the way, not the youngest, but he's slightly older than Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana.

But it was sort of maybe this isn't his year. But there is certainly potential there that could be an opening for a Marco Rubio.

GWEN IFILL: And Rand Paul basically has had a little bit of a path carved for him by his father when he has run before in New Hampshire. So, he's at least familiar on that respect.

TAMARA KEITH: Right. But he's also trying to navigate the challenging waters of running towards dad, running away from dad, where do I stand. And I think he's still figuring that out. That will probably be a long journey.

GWEN IFILL: Be fun to watch.

Let's talk about Hillary Clinton, because she is making her first trip to New Hampshire today. And the one interesting thing about what the Republicans were doing this weekend, they talked about Common Core, and they talked about Iran and they talked about substance, but they talked a lot about Hillary Clinton.

KAREN TUMULTY: They did.

And you really got a sense that they were sort of auditioning their attack lines and the attack lines essentially went in two directions, one, that maybe she's running as a history-making first woman president, but guess what, she would also be a third term for Barack Obama. This is same old, same old.

The second thing is there were a lot of lines kind of mocking the rough spots of her rollout, lots of jokes about Chipotle, lots of talk about Benghazi. But you did get a sense that the Republicans understand that running against a woman is a little bit of a different endeavor, so they have to be tough enough to rev up their base, but not looking like they are piling on her in a way that is going to offend centrist voters and women who see this as sexist.

GWEN IFILL: And the interesting response this afternoon from Hillary Clinton, who decided to talk to reporters, knowing there would be questions about these questions. And her response was, I don't know what they would talk about if I weren't in the race.

TAMARA KEITH: It was sort of a haters going to hate, to quote Taylor Swift.

GWEN IFILL: Never do that again.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: That's OK.

(LAUGHTER)

TAMARA KEITH: But, yes, it's interesting because she's been doing these events, first in Iowa, now in New Hampshire, very controlled, sort of limiting the size of the press corps, or limiting who's in, limiting the audience, keeping it very small, trying to make it a conversation.

And she hasn't answered a lot of questions. There have been quite a few questions shouted at her, but there haven't been that many answers. But, this time, she came forward and she wanted to answer.

GWEN IFILL: You were chasing after her quite a bit in Iowa. How was it? There's a certain level of absurdity of chasing after the highest-profile candidate in the race who's trying to be low-profile. How did that roll out?

TAMARA KEITH: Well, it was fascinating. There were decoy locations both for the reporters who were in the press pool. We were supposed to be there, but we were given a decoy location, then give another location and told to move to that next location.

The people who were selected to sit with her and have those conversations, the Democratic activists who she was trying to woo and listen to, they also were given decoy locations and had to give away, hand over their cell phones before they moved to the actual location, all to try to avoid some sort of mob scene of people trying to get to her.

GWEN IFILL: How much fun are you looking forward to the decoy locations, Karen?

(LAUGHTER)

KAREN TUMULTY: I have got to tell you, what I am sensing, though, especially on the Republican side, is that people feel like there are so many choices out there, why make up your mind now? Let's let this process play out a little more.

GWEN IFILL: I'm for that. Let's let it play out. Otherwise, what will we talk about every Monday?

Karen Tumulty, Tamara Keith, thank you both very much.

TAMARA KEITH: Thank you.

KAREN TUMULTY: Thank you.

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