Derry, N.H. — “I know you all agree with fiscal integrity up here,” Jeb Bush said to begin a town hall here today — his first official event as a presidential candidate. “That’s why I love New Hampshire.”
The Granite State — at least, its Republican half — has historically voted for candidates who train their focus on economic, rather than social, issues. And here at a small-town opera house, the former Florida governor waxed poetic about reforming taxes, balancing budgets, cutting entitlements, and growing the economy. The audience ate it up.
But the governor’s warm reception inside the Adams Memorial Opera House was marred by about 20 libertarian-leaning protesters waiting just outside. Waving signs that read “No Communist Core,” “Bailout Bush,” and “No Banker Left Behind,” the group epitomized the Free State’s iconoclastic political positions. If voters of a similar mind exert as much influence this time around as they have in past elections, the New Hampshire primary may prove a difficult hill for Bush to climb.
Though he’s not known as the most vibrant campaigner in the Republican field, Bush was on his game during the town-hall-style Q&A. Surrounded by about 300 New Hampshirites, he skillfully fielded questions from the crowd. In fact, he seemed to genuinely be enjoying himself.
Bush likely knows he must avoid angering New Hampshire’s libertarian bloc if he wants to eke out a win in the state’s primary.
That may be because Jeb was in his element. Most of the questions focused on economic policy, a field Bush became well-versed in during his time as Florida’s governor.
Again and again he hit on the need to simplify the tax code, saying his campaign is “working on a proposal” for reform. He stressed the need for massive debt reduction and wasn’t afraid to call the growth in Social Security and other entitlement spending the chief obstacle in achieving that goal. “We can’t ignore this,” he said. “It’s painful for people to think about this, but it’s not possible to balance the budget with these exploding out-year expenses that will inevitably occur.” That assertion received a rousing round of applause — surprising for an issue as touchy as entitlement reform.
The event went over almost flawlessly, with Bush pumping up the crowd and displaying the grace he’ll need to take the fight to an expert campaigner like Marco Rubio. “He’s a very polished candidate,” says Mark Lion, a New Hampshire resident who came to support Bush.
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But despite being impressed, many attendees remain on the fence about a Bush candidacy. “I haven’t decided yet,” says Jerry, a resident of Londonderry, N.H., who liked Bush’s performance. “I’d like to listen to Chris Christie. He speaks his mind, and you know if you ask him a question, he’s going to answer it.”
“I’ll be straight out — I like Huckabee,” says Christine Tilley of Windham, N.H. “I’m not saying he’s got a great chance of winning, but . . . if I had my No. 1 choice, it’d probably be Huckabee.”
“But it was really nice to see [Bush],” she adds quickly. “He’s certainly quite acceptable. If he was the Republican nominee I’d definitely vote for him.”
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That receptive ambivalence was not at all on display outside, where libertarian protesters stood united against a Bush run. “This guy doesn’t want to take a stand on anything,” says Ann Eliot of Goffstown, N.H. “He wants to distance himself from his family, but he doesn’t want to take a stand.”
“I’m looking for a pro-peace candidate,” she says, raising a sign that says “Read My Lips — No More Bushes.”
“It’s like these political dynasties, it almost reminds me of the Wars of the Roses and monarchy,” says Daniel Cuevas, whose sign reads “Bush vs. Clinton: What Difference Does It Make?”
#related#Cuevas, who is particularly incensed by Common Core and the law he views as its forebearer, No Child Left Behind, says Jeb will likely prove a repeat of Dubya. “He keeps saying, ‘I’m not my brother, I’m not my brother,’” Cuevas says of Bush. “But I think like 18 or 19 of the people on his campaign staff were members of the George W. Bush administration. So you’re not like your brother, you’re just hiring all the people your brother liked.”
The libertarian vote is a force to be reckoned with in New Hampshire. Ron Paul finished a strong second in the 2012 primary, earning 23 percent of the vote in a contest already all but locked up by Mitt Romney. With a number of competitive candidates in the race this time around, it’s unlikely Bush will be able pull together a similar level of support. That 23 percent could easily push a less established candidate to a plurality victory against a wide slate of GOP opponents.
Bush likely knows he must avoid angering New Hampshire’s libertarian bloc if he wants to eke out a win in the state’s primary. During a Florida cattle call two weeks ago, he had no trouble slamming Rand Paul for saying that the NSA’s surveillance programs were a threat to our freedom. At Tuesday’s town hall, he pointedly ignored part of a question on the erosion of civil liberties and immediately pivoted back to safer ground: His economic message.
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.