Three Republicans hoping for a big showing in the New Hampshire primary -- Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Marco Rubio -- were busy locally this week. The three are also angling for many of the same voters as Primary Day approaches. NHPR caught up with them in Derry, Bedford and Meredith.
When Kasich hit the conference room at the Derry-Londonderry Chamber of Commerce Thursday morning, he was in no mood for pomp.
"Instead of saying anything, why don’t I just take your questions, let’s do that," he suggested. "Like a mini town hall."
For the next hour the Ohio governor fielded questions that ranged from the IRS – Kasich doesn’t think the agency needs more money – to Planned Parenthood – Kasich would defund it -- to his approach to getting things done in politics.
“I get a lot of what I want because I come with such a big package," Kasich said. "And that’s what a president has to do. Within 100 days, I’m going to have the package I outlined right before the Congress.”
Kasich says spelling out large goals – here he was talking about a plan to cut taxes for individuals and businesses – paves the way for what would most likely end up as piecemeal progress.
"I don’t know if the individual tax rate is doable, to tell you the truth," Kasich told his audience of local businessmen and women. "If you have a Republican House and Senate, I think you have a better chance of getting it done. But the problem with tax reform is that everyone is for it until you start to do it."
It’s rare for candidates for any office to doubt the viability of their own polices. But Kasich, wenho spent two decades in Congress and is in his second term leading Ohio, has pitched himself as pragmatist. Mark Vanover, an independent who’s worked in high-tech sales, says he’s be following Kasich for a while and after hearing him in Derry, will vote for him.
"He just wants to get stuff done," Vanover said. "He doesn’t necessarily believe that people are always going to agree but let’s find a compromise and let’s do it."
Before he headed back to his campaign bus, Kasich said he likes where he likes where he stands in New Hampshire and cited polls that show him on the rise. He asked the business crowd for help, but also indicated experience has taught him that voters minds are their own.
"You got to just see who I am, and If you like it, great, and if you don’t, what am I supposed to do?" he said.
Like Kasich, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has made competence and experience the centerpiece of his campaign pitch. Speaking to a crowd in Meredith Wednesday night, added something else: America, he said, needs a mature and humble president.
“I know what I don’t know; I admit it," Bush said. "I feel better now; it feels like I’ve given myself therapy. I hope you want a president that recognizes in a complex world, the best thing to do is to acknowledge what you don’t know and then go seek out the best information possible.”
Bush has been selling that message for months now in New Hampshire. And he seems more comfortable in delivering it. Compared to a few months ago, Bush’s answers on the stump have grown longer but also sharper.
But his campaign remains troubled by a couple of factors. One of them was mentioned by name by a voter, Tom Emmanuel of Laconia..
“I’m leaning towards Donald Trump," said to Bush. "And I was just wondering why you think he’s a jerk."
Bush then actually complimented Trump on a few things, including his efforts to push the boundaries of political correctness. But Bush said Trump went too far when he mocked New York Times reporter with a physical disability.
“That’s why I called him a jerk -- because he disparaged a person who he knew had a disability and made fun of him. What kind of person would you want to have in the presidency that does that?”
Emmanuel, for his part, said afterwards that he is still leaning toward Trump. But Bush did manage to make an impression.
“He doesn’t come across as a dirty politician, which is nice," Emmanuel said. "So if I say I’m leaning toward Trump I also have kind of a sentimental place in voting heart for Jeb Bush as well.”
Other voters like Paul Garrison illustrate a separate challenge for Bush in these final weeks of the primary.
“There are three or four that are serious, responsible; they know what they’re doing," he said. "Then there’s the circus.”
Garrison puts Trump in that circus category. But as Garrison points out, that still leaves him with plenty of other candidates to choose from.
Thursday morning in Bedford, one of those other candidates, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, greeted a packed-to-the-walls house party. There, Rubio put his assessment of this campaign in stark terms.
“This election is a referendum on our identity as a people and as a nation," he said. "And we have a very straightforward choice to make: American can be greater than it’s ever been or our children will be the first Americans to inherit a diminished country.”
Rubio emphasized his experiences with issues like student-debt and immigration, arguing that he is more in touch with average Americans than other candidates.
“I understand what people are facing and our president must," he said. "We need a president that is just as frustrated, just as anxious about what’s happening to our country.”
Rubio’s audience was supportive but also discerning. One voter asked Rubio about an issue that’s popular among his rivals: his spotting attendance record in the Senate.
Rubio responded by saying that many of the votes he missed weren’t consequential because they were quote ‘precooked’ by congressional leadership in Washington.
“And so I ran for president because I want these votes to matter again. I want these votes to actually be productive," Rubio said. "So that when we vote to repeal Obamacare, it’s not just to send a message. It is to actually have a president that will sign that and get rid of it once and for all.”
Tali Zervos of Manchester says she’s seen several candidates this primary season. But after catching Rubio in Bedford, she’s excited to support his campaign.
“He’s got my vote," Zervos said. "I love him. It’s the second time I’ve met him. He’s youthful, he’s smart, he’s polished, he’s sincere, he’s genuine. I can’t come up with enough adjectives to describe him.”
But others like Tracy Richmond of Bedford were less smitten.
“I don’t like when they spend time talking about all the things the other candidates are doing wrong or the current political system is doing wrong," she said. "I’d rather hear more concrete changes and what they’re going to do and how they’re going to pay for it.”
Whether it’s policy or personality voters are beginning to narrow their options, candidate by candidate.