New Hampshire: First in the Nation—And Last?

Donald Trump shares a key trait with New Hampshire voters: a need for flattery and affirmation.

Residents here are accustomed to parades of candidates every four years to tell them how sacred their first national primary is, how discerning their supposedly “independent” and “contrarian” voters are. Politicians continually strive to convey how vital New Hampshire is to the process.

But things seem precarious and a little topsy-turvy here these days – more of a final whimper than the opening salvo.

I landed in Manchester on Friday afternoon and found the place almost numb with abandonment. Elm Street, the “main street” of New Hampshire’s largest city, which is usually conducive to a few candidate appearances and media scrums, was quiet. Once a flagship stop on the presidential tour, this original colony felt neglected during the last weekend before today's primaries, and has well lost its glory.

“Where is everyone?” I asked the woman next to me at the counter at the Red Arrow Diner downtown on Friday. The century-old spoon on Lowell Street has served as a landmark for visiting political hackers and a reliable backdrop for candidate photo ops.

“Ryan Binkley was right there,” my seatmate informed me. I googled Ryan Binkley. He's a pastor from Texas who says he's running for president because God called him to do so. Who is Ryan Binkley? the yard signs say (good enough to finish fifth in Iowa, apparently).

You can understand why the once-flattered population of the Granite State might feel unloved. Last year, Democrats, led by the current president of the United States, abandoned New Hampshire in favor of South Carolina, which was officially the party's first primary. The despised New England stalwart scheduled his primaries anyway, even though the Democratic National Committee said it would not recognize the results or award delegates from this ungodly action. President Joe Biden did not campaign in the state and his name is not on the ballot.

Today, Republicans continue to drop out, leaving the GOP race to Trump, who was routed last week in Iowa, and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley (plus Binkley and a few others ). Campaign events were still happening in New Hampshire during this final week, but much less than usual; Trump, and to a lesser extent Haley, attracted the attention and the biggest crowds.

The former president seemed both disjointed and calm. “When I fly over a blue state, two days later I get a subpoena,” Trump said at the start of a rally in Concord Friday evening. Technically, New Hampshire is itself a blue state, or at least it was in the last presidential election; Trump lost it in 2016 and 2020. But things looked pretty safe here for Trump in the primary. Recent polls gave him a double-digit lead over Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was still in the race heading into the weekend but had little concern about New Hampshire.

“DeSantis, God bless him. He’s left behind at this point,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, told me at a Haley event at a Milford restaurant Friday afternoon. “What happened to that guy?” » Trump asked DeSantis a few hours later in Concord. “One of the greatest self-destructions I think I've ever witnessed.”

At the very least, DeSantis understood that the dominant dynamic of the Republican Party over the past eight years remained intact. “You can be the most useless Republican in America,” he said during one of his final campaign stops in Iowa, dropping a few nuggets of clarity as the end approached. “If you kiss the ring, he’ll say you’re wonderful.” The governor left the race on Sunday and, yes, he kissed the ring on his way out, supporting Trump.

This followed a week-long procession of white flags. Trump's former “opponents” continued to support former president Vivek Ramaswamy last Monday; the governor of North Dakota, whoever he is, the day before; Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina joined Trump in Concord on Friday. On Sunday, New Hampshire seemed like the last stand in a battle that never started.

Throughout the weekend, Trump tried to assure his supporters that he knew the importance of the state, even though he would certainly prefer to spend his time elsewhere; he describe New Hampshire as “a drug-infested den” in a 2017 phone call with then-Mexico President. He's been holding nightly rallies across the state since Friday, telling everyone how special he is, and the admiration is of course mutual.

“I'm thrilled to be back in the home of the first in the country,” Trump said at his rally in Concord. Any candidate who comes to New Hampshire cannot say these four words:first in the country-enough. And Trump did it, four times in the space of a few sentences.

“Do you know who kept you first in the nation? » Trump asked the crowd.

“Asset!” » he said, pronouncing his own name as well as those of some members of the audience.

“But I just want to tell you that you are the first in the country,” he said. “You will always be the first in the country!” »

For her part, Haley has been intent on convincing everyone that New Hampshire is still a race. A two-person race, to be precise. “Between Nikki and Trump,” Sununu repeated, like a fleece-clad parrot, as he accompanied Haley across the state, four or five stops a day. He and Haley have repeatedly compared this two-person race to the one most Americans fear, between Trump and Biden.

“People don’t want two octogenarians running for president,” Haley said during a brief news conference Friday at an Amherst restaurant (Trump is 77; Biden is 81). She spent much of the session chastising the media for not properly correcting the false things Trump says about her. “You all need to call him,” she insisted. She also speculated that even though 70 percent of Americans don't want to be subjected to a Trump-Biden rematch, “70 percent of the media do I want revenge.

It's questionable, for what it's worth. Rather, “the media” wanted a competitive primary campaign – real uncertainty and real drama, and a reason beyond having to stay tuned.

Like Trump, Dean Phillips is happy to fill the void of his love for New Hampshire. “We have to practice democracy,” the Minnesota Democratic representative said Saturday afternoon at a senior center in Nashua. Phillips, a wealthy former ice baron, is running a long-running campaign against Biden – in effect, a write-in version of Biden, who, because he is not on the ballot, can only be elected by this way by New Hampshire residents willing to ignore. the president's ghosting of their state.

“Why write in Biden? Phillips asked at the event if Biden was “writing off New Hampshire?” Polite laughter, maybe a moan or two. Phillips also suggested that Biden was “taking the Granite State for granted.” (Dean Phillips: the Dad Joke candidate!)

Back in Concord, Trump went even further by expressing his admiration for his host and its traditions, dating back to the Civil War. Uh-oh. Haley did this last month, and it didn't go well. But Trump – a student of history – had an important lesson to share. “They said the people of New Hampshire were very tough fighters,” Trump said. “Did you know?” (No one seemed to know.) He said he had read that somewhere. “History,” he continued. “Very tough fighters.”

“You have won many battles. It was a nasty war.

He then proceeded to make a bizarre flurry of comments about Haley, ridiculing her failure to protect the US Capitol on January 6 – wait, did he mean then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi? Maybe, but Trump kept saying Haley's name over and over again.

“They,” he said, don’t want to talk about how Haley was in charge of security on Jan. 6.

He also said that Haley – this time he apparently meant Nikki Haley, the one he's running against – was not “capable,” “tough,” “smart” or “respected” enough to be president and manage Vladimir. Putin, Xi Jinping. , or Kim Jong Un. “Very brave people,” Trump called them.

In another era, this would be the kind of strange plant that could upend a New Hampshire primary. Haley did her best to keep Trump's bizarre comments out of the spotlight over the weekend. But above all they encountered the usual resignation of a party unwilling to fight and drifting towards the inevitable.

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