PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire—If Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are looking for hope in their to-date underwhelming presidential campaigns, Tuesday night’s patrons of the Rusty Hammer should give them more than a glimmer.
While many of the nation’s Republicans seem in thrall of developer-turned-reality-TV-star Donald Trump, the Portsmouth Republican Party members who gathered to watch the fifth GOP debate at the upstairs bar appeared far more impressed with the former Florida and current New Jersey governors.
When Bush pointed out that the Kurds allied with the United States against the Islamic State are themselves Muslim, and therefore banning Muslims from the country would be counterproductive, heads at the bar nodded. When Bush called Trump the “chaos candidate,” they laughed and clapped.
Christie’s mockery of sitting senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio for arguing over votes on amendments and bills similarly drew applause.
When Donald Trump claimed ISIS is using the Internet “better than we are using the Internet,” or when he renewed his promise to build a “great wall” along the Mexican border, viewers glanced at each other and chortled.
“Trump’s doing so well right now because all the reasonable candidates have divided constituencies. And it’s killing us,” said Stephen Erickson, a real estate broker who was among those at the bar. He said he currently favors former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—but his overriding concern is to make sure Trump is defeated. “He’s terrible. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
New Hampshire is known for a more secular brand of Republicanism, and that streak also came through. When retired neurosurgeon and devout Christian Ben Carson opened his remarks by calling for a moment of silence for the victims of the San Bernardino shootings, one man at the bar responded: “That is just crass.”
Even those sympathetic with the religious conservative candidates like Carson and Cruz, though, seemed to be on the same page as the others regarding Trump. “I think he’s a loudmouth showboat,” said optometrist Shirlie Dowd. She added, though, that Trump has afforded her preferred candidates one benefit: “All the candidates that I love are still in the race because all the media have been distracted by Trump.”
New Hampshire voters conduct their primary on Feb. 9, eight days after voting begins in the Iowa caucuses.