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Reporter’s notebook: What happened in New Hampshire this weekend

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All the heavyweights for the GOP presidential 2016 race were in Nashua, N.H., this weekend — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

But while those six men are always mentioned when it comes to “serious” contenders, over a dozen other men — and one woman — who say they are pondering entering the race also spoke at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit, and I was there to observe it all from just a few feet away from the main stage in the ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where it all took place. (Actually, I probably wasn’t supposed to be in that room. More on that later.)

This Coachella for Republican political enthusiasts was organized very well by the folks at the New Hampshire Republican Party, but I’m sure they’re skilled at things like this, since their state has such an outrageously large influence on who end up being our major political party candidates every four years. I mean, Floridians make a big deal about how much the general election presidential candidates visit Tampa and Orlando and other parts of the Sunshine State every four years before Election Day, but folks in New Hampshire expect presidential candidates to basically come and do their laundry if it’s demanded upon them. Talk about entitlement. It’s retail politics on steroids, and this weekend was the unofficial kick-off to the race.

Only two of the probable contenders, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum, failed to appear.

But Carson did send a man named Vernon Robinson to be his surrogate, and Team Ben had a coterie of young staffers handing out Ben Carson goodie tote bags, which included a “Run, Ben, Run” 2016 wall calendar, stickers, a Ben Carson cozy, and a booklet titled, “Ben Carson, On the Issues in His Own Words.”

Robinson informed the masses that Carson would be making his official announcement about his plans in Detroit on May 4. Considering the effort being made to remind people that he regretted not being in New Hampshire, you can bet he’s running.

Following him was Jane Homan, a Washington, D.C., committeewoman, who gave the most factually detailed presentation of the weekend. Homan used statistical information to show how poorly Republicans fare in our cities in elections, noting how few Republicans nationally these days run cities as mayors or control city councils. Conceding that the GOP probably won’t win our biggest cities in presidential elections anytime soon,  she insisted that cutting into the margins in towns in swing states like Ohio can change how those states vote in presidential elections — and it was an important voice in calling on Republicans to consider those constituents, just as Rand Paul has attempted to do.

But it got a little loony after that, when a gentleman named Dennis Michael Lynch was given the requisite 30 minutes to present his agenda. A conservative filmmaker, Lynch apparently fancies himself a potential candidate, though other than generating a lot of interest when appearing on Fox News, it’s not evident to someone who has never seen him before what his appeal is. He blithely dismissed the idea that deporting 12 million undocumented people in America would be a hard thing to do, so he’s got that going for himself.

Finally hitting the stage was a former elected official. Former New York Gov. George Pataki apparently is considering a run for higher office, though if there’s been a clamor for him anywhere, it’s been extremely under the radar. (We wrote up individual posts on most of the major candidates speeches, which you can access by hitting the hyperlinks attached.)

Pataki has been out of the public eye since leaving Albany in 2006, but just like California governors, I suppose New York governors will always be mentioned as possible candidates for national office. One thing I’ll say about Pataki is that he looks presidential. By that I mean he’s white, tall, and looks good in a suit.

Pataki was followed up by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, always a barrel of laughs. A neo-cons’ neocon, Bolton doesn’t appear to be seriously running, but does want to influence the debate.

I should insert here that defense and foreign policy issues seemed to be what the New Hampshire Republicans care most about. Some candidates focused on domestic issues (noticeably Chris Christie on reforming entitlements), but the blood surged within everybody in the room every time Barack Obama’s foreign policy moves were concerned, particularly regarding the current negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program. Failed leadership was cited by many, with the speakers generally saying that any of those in New Hampshire could do a better job. Other than Peter King or Rand Paul, Republicans reserved any fire on themselves. Which made it rather redundant by the middle of Saturday afternoon.

The first major speaker of the day on Friday was former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who said he was worried about the state of the nation, but was generally very enthusiastic, being exactly the candidate you thought he’d be in 2012 but wasn’t, quite possibly because he was recovering from back surgery. By that I mean, the classic Texas pol, the guy who jogs with a gun, which is what Perry used to do. He tried to brighten the mood by saying that help was on the way in 19 months. If America could survive Jimmy Carter, we can make it through two more years of Barack Obama, he assured. Maybe.

Watching Chris Christie made me remember the criticisms that came his way from fellow Republicans after his speech in 2012 at the RNC. You know, the one where he talked a lot about himself, and barely mentioned Mitt Romney? Christie likes talking a lot about his style. You know, the no-holds-barred, tell-it-like-it-is mantra that thrilled a lot of Republicans when he first came on the scene in 2010?

Christie hasn’t officially announced, and there is some question if Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have taken a lot of his natural support and fundraising base away. Overall, it wasn’t a bad performance, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he does say he’s in it. But then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he said just screw it. A final report on BridgeGate is upcoming; no doubt that will have a major effect on his ultimate decision, one would think.

Jeb Bush had one of the more impressive half-hours on the Crown Plaza ballroom stage this weekend, as much for his handling of some tough questions from the crowd. One on his so-called inevitability and his ardor for Common Core, which seems to be universally loathed by a lot of Republicans in New Hampshire, and something tells me it’s not selling that well in the rest of Republican land. If you’re a Bush fan, you have to hope that his passion about education reform can convert you over to his side.

Marco Rubio closed out the night on Friday, giving the keynote dinner speech. Rubio admitted in the speech that running for office meant sacrificing things like being with his wife and kids on nights like this. Not exactly a line to get the crowd out of their seats, though absolutely honest.

Let me be honest here to insert that Rubio was the only speaker during my time in Nashua that I watched on computer, and not in the flesh. That was unlike most, if not all of the print/Internet reporters, however, who worked out of a media room where there was no video presence to see the candidates. Let me repeat that again — there was no video feed. There was an audio feed, and I’m sure many people were watching the speeches on MSNBC.com, which was streaming live on their laptops.

However, when I entered the hotel room after getting credentialed on Friday morning, I didn’t see the media room, and walked straight into the ballroom. I saw a riser in the back with television cameramen and radio reporters who were hooked up to a malt box, and even a few folks with laptops open. So I chose a table to the far end of the room where nobody was sitting. And stayed there the whole weekend, but I was booted out for the dinner crowd to come in for Marco’s speech.

Saturday’s proceedings began promptly at 8 a.m., with famed political focus group guy Frank Luntz leading a focus group with the entire audience. Luntz asked the audience which candidate would they like to help them fix a flat tire. One woman named Hillary Clinton, because “I want to see if she could accomplish it.”

Luntz went for his broad laughs as well. When asked who did the audience think had the highest IQ in the field, one man yelled out Chris Christie’s name. When asked why, he said, “He’s got a great act.”

“He’s got a great ass?” Luntz replied. “What, are we in San Francisco?”

When he asked which candidate would the audience not mind being stuck in an elevator with for six hours, one woman said Marco Rubio.

“He’s got I.Q. and E.Q,” she said, referring to emotional intelligence, I think. She went on to say of Florida’s junior senator that “He’s America’s new favorite grandson. Every grandmother in America is going to fall in love with Marco Rubio.”

A friend sitting next to her agreed, mentioning Rubio’s personality, intellect and “great family story.”

“He is very smart,” she said, adding, “And to spend six hours in an elevator with him would be a delight.”

It then got a little rough.

Bob Ehrlich won an upset victory in 2002 in Maryland, when he defeated Kathleen Townsend Kennedy to become a rarity in Maryland — a Republican leading the state. Ehrlich is one of these not-so-famous Republicans thinking about a run. He told the audience that he was trying to figure out if there was a place for a blue-collar Republican in the field.

“I think we need to be angry, but purposefully angry,” he told the crowd, in somewhat menacing and unfriendly tones. “I’m here to remind people that that anger needs to be directed because we’ve lost five out of the last six presidential elections,” he said. “We’ve proven that we are a regional party. We’ve proven we can we when we don’t have an agenda,” he said of the 2014 congressional election victories. “The American public was down on Barack Obama,” he said of what happened last year. “But guess what? That formula doesn’t work well in presidential years,” he warned the audience. “The country is a’ changing’. The culture’s a-changing.”

He went on to blast Democrats as exploiting class warfare, saying “the other side demonizes wealth.” He also unveiled invective against all Democrats, saying that they make things up and the American public, or so-called “low information voters,” are what’s allowing Democrats to win major offices. “Their agenda is counter-cultural. It doesn’t celebrate success, it doesn’t celebrate entrepreneurialism,” he complained. “It was a jealousy campaign,” he said of Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney in 2012.

He then began yelling, saying that Republicans — not Democrats — have led the way on criminal justice reform issues.

That tone continued with an appearance by Betsy McCaughey, who shlepped a copy of the Affordable Care Act (all 1,200 pages) to the stage.

For the uninitiated, McCaughey is hailed in conservative circles for her opposition to “HillaryCare” back in the ’90s when she was the lieutenant governor of New York. She does not have a good speaking style, and was virtually shrieking when discussing Hillary Clinton. “She couldn’t run a gas station!” she barked.

Then Rand Paul hit the stage, clad in blue jeans, a white shirt and red tie. As has been much discussed, Paul needs to balance his natural isolationist stance on foreign policy issues with the fact that the country, and certainly Republicans, seem to be more anxious about security issues than a year ago. A group like ISIS can change people’s mentality on such issues.

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough then showed up to host a media panel discussion.

I wrote about Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump’s appearances on Saturday, but didn’t get to see/hear much of Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee’s speeches, though I was in the room when they were addressing the crowd. What I remember about Jindal was that the crowd was cracking up at his jokes. I also thought: There’s no way this guy is going to be a serious contender.

Huckabee says he’ll formally announce his plans in May, like Ben Carson. With all of this other energy in the room, I don’t see Huckabee taking off like he did in 2008. But hey, it’s early, no predictions here.

This was around the time when I was part of the press scrum with Donald Trump in the media room, which was fun because it was sort of like performance art — let’s all look Donald Trump in the eyes and treat him seriously like a guy who’s going to keep on coming back to New Hampshire.

But since I had to write that up, this is where I couldn’t really give too much attention to Jindal or Huckabee, thus no individual write-ups on them. And frankly, like on a Sunday at Coachella, your energy has been expended pretty hard at this point giving so much attention to so many public speakers. The energy was dying out in the room.

So I couldn’t pay as much attention I wanted to perhaps the most interesting man in GOP politics, now that Rand Paul enjoyed that stand for a few months until he actually realized he’d have to compromise a lot to be taken seriously as a nominee — and that man is John Kasich.

Taking nothing for granted, Kasich discussed his life before politics, and then about his work on the House Budget Committee in the House in the ’90s, when he helped the country get a balanced budget through “for the first time since the moon landing.”

He told the audience to hold off on committing to any candidates until he made up his mind. He’s one of several Republican governors who fought to expand Medicaid, saying it was the right thing to do.

In his comments, he distinguished himself from his fellow Republicans.

“You know, I’m a fighter,” Kasich said. “I could fight with the best of ‘em. I could come in here and spend this whole speech blasting Barack Obama, and all this other stuff, but that’s not what I wanted to do.”

Kasich was followed by a red-meat-filled speech by firebrand Ted Cruz.

By then it was 4 p.m. in Nashua, and with a 7 p.m. flight back to Tampa from Logan International in Boston, it was my cue to exit. So I’ve yet to see and hear Scott Walker in the flesh.

I think I’ll survive.

This 2016 race is really just getting started, with time for folks like Kasich to still get in and do something interesting.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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