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In Primary's Waning Days, GOP Candidates Intensify Battle for Mainstream N.H. Voters

Campaign mailers have largely consisted of attacks by Republican candidates - or their Super PACs - against other Republicans. And much of the attacks have been among the mainstream candidates in the field.

In this year's Republican presidential primary, much has been made about a division between insiders and outsiders. But in New Hampshire, perhaps the most intense battle is happening within that insider group. And as the primary campaign enters its final stage, the fight for the mainstream Republican vote is only growing more intense.

At a recent campaign stop for John Kasich in Amherst, it was clear that many voters were still shopping for a candidate. It was also clear that many were picking from an almost identical short list.

It's a list of governors that includes John Kasich himself, but also Chris Christie, the current New Jersey governor, and Jeb Bush, a former Florida chief executive. Some voters added Sen. Marco Rubio to the list. What do they all have in common? Resumes chock full of government experience and a professed willingness to make deals. Together they represent what you might call the mainstream wing of the GOP primary field.

And in recent weeks this group of candidates has been locked in a battle to become the alternative to Donald Trump, the current Republican front runner. It’s a battle that’s been playing out almost exclusively in New Hampshire, where a strong finish is essential to each of these candidate’s fortunes. Currently they are all polling within five points of each other.

Taking the fight to the airwaves

In Amherst Tuesday night, Kasich did his best not to acknowledge any of this. But as soon as he finished his standard stump speech, a voter asked Kasich a simple question: Can you compare and contrast yourself with Christie and Bush.

“No," Kasich declined. "The only thing I would tell you about is me.”

Kasich then went on to describe his record in Ohio and Congress, before ending on a civil note.

“So I’ll leave you to figure the rest of it out cause I’d rather not get into all that stuff," he said. "I’m in too good of a mood.”

That "stuff" Kasich is referring to -- attacks on other candidates’ character and political history -- is not something you’re likely to hear from these candidates while on the stump. But in voters’ mailboxes and TV screens it’s been a different story.

Attacks from and against this quartet of mainstream Republicans (or their Super PACs) have crowded airwaves and campaign mailers in recent weeks. And voters are taking notice. Susan Burrow of Amherst came to the Kasich event clutching a fistful of negative flyers from her mailbox.

“Someone is going after each other," she said. "And what’s frustrating is that –I just got a bunch of these today- is they are organizations or PACs who are sending it, but you can’t tell exactly who they’re for.”

It’s one thing for voters to try and decide which of these candidates is their favorite. But voters like Becky Stoughton of Amherst are also thinking strategically about how best to use their vote to stop Trump.

“I could go for any of them honestly," Stoughton said. "So which one to vote for is the question at this point. And I think one of them needs to pull ahead in order to be a solid alternative.”

A necessary fight?

But for a candidate to become that solid alternative, these kinds of attacks are necessary. That’s according to former Republican Congressman from New Hampshire Charlie Bass.

“As the four or five other candidates winnow out over the coming months, a third place or second place finish in New Hampshire is really meaningful," Bass said.

Rich Ashooh is a prominent Republican who has hosted events for many of these candidates at his Bedford home over the course of the campaign. He says that while all this jostling may not make it easy for voters to pick a favorite, it’s also not likely to leave any lasting bruises on the candidates themselves.

“That dynamic is as old as politics," Ashooh said. "Politicians are well practiced at developing scar tissue and mending fences. So these alliances can form and reform and they should. I think it’s generally overall a good thing.”

Back at the Kasich event in Amherst, Becky Stoughton isn’t as sure. She worries that if the mainstream candidates split the vote, Trump’s path to the nomination will be cleared. So she’s waiting for a signal to know how to make the most of her vote.

“I hate to say it, but polls would help because what I think makes a difference," she said. "But I also am trying to support whoever I think I could get behind that is actually electable and that other people could get behind.”

Whether through town halls events or attack ads, these mainstream candidates have less than two weeks to convince voters like Stoughton that they’re the one worth backing.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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