HUDSON, NH (AP) — They recognize Donald Trump’s dominance, but weary New Hampshire Republicans — even inside the governor’s office — are fighting to keep the former president from winning the nation’s first primary.
For now, however, they are relying on nothing but hope and prayers.
Look no further than Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, who repeatedly appealed to voters’ faith this week as he tried to resuscitate his anemic presidential campaign while courting a few dozen voters in the backyard of a former state lawmaker.
“I truly believe that different times call for different leadership,” Pence told his modest crowd. “I know you are all going to do your job, because I have faith. I have faith in the American people.
More than a dozen top Republicans are looking to New Hampshire, the state long known for outshine political underdogs, to help halt Trump’s march to a third consecutive Republican presidential nomination. But so far, none have broken the veneer of inevitability that has followed Trump through the early states of the presidential primary calendar despite — or perhaps because of — his mounting legal challenges.
A significant portion of the Republican electorate remains open to a new presidential candidate with less baggage than Trump. But months after many of them entered the race, there are few signs that the former president’s rivals are breaking through.
The strongest Trump alternative on paper, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has already begun laying off staff amid unexpected financial challenges and stagnant polling numbers. Others failed to come up with single numbers in early polls. And as Trump braces for the possibility of a third criminal indictment, his grip on the party seems stronger than ever.
Pence, perhaps more than anyone, has been swept up in the powerful backlash of Trumpism that has reshaped the political landscape for much of the past decade.
Pence barely registered in a new poll released this week by the University of New Hampshire. And he admitted this week that he does not yet have enough donors to qualify for the opening presidential debate next month, an extraordinary position for a former vice president. During several stops in New Hampshire this week, he called on voters to donate even $1 to boost his number.
“Obviously he wants to do better,” Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said. “You’re not going to find a better character and a better person than someone like Mike Pence. He’s just a great guy. But his message, for some reason, doesn’t quite resonate with people.”
Pence has managed to draw the ire of Trump loyalists and critics.
Among those who dislike Trump, Pence is seen as a Trump sidekick who enabled his misbehavior for four years. And those who love Trump blame Pence for not blocking certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory on January 6, 2021 — a power the former vice president did not have.
Trump loyalists infamously chanted “Hang Mike Pence” as they stormed the US Capitol and his political standing in the Republican Party never recovered.
“I think Mike Pence is genuinely destroyed,” former New Hampshire GOP chairwoman Jennifer Horn said. “He can’t win. There’s no circumstance and no race that Mike Pence will never win. It’s sad.”
New Hampshire, a state that has traditionally eschewed the kind of religious conservatism that Pence espouses, would be an unlikely playground for a return of the evangelical Christian who kicked off his 2024 campaign in Iowa. Yet politicians on all sides have managed to break through over the years in a state that has often rewarded those willing to invest time and attention.
Former President Bill Clinton became the “comeback kid” after finishing second here in 1992. The state also helped resurrect Republican John McCain’s difficult campaign in 2008. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a religious conservative like Pence, earned a strong second place finish in 2016.
Still, the road to relevance for anyone not called Trump in 2024 will be a steep one.
Pence is essentially trying to reinvent himself by running for voters in New Hampshire. He and his staff adopted a new mantra: “He is well known but not well known.”
During his first stop in New Hampshire this week, Pence largely avoided talking about his years as vice president and did not utter Trump’s name. He introduced himself as follows: “I’m Mike Pence. I’m from Indiana. And I’m running for president.
Pence’s message on the stump is a throwback of sorts to the conservative GOP platform before Trump’s big government populism took over.
He called for a tough foreign policy, a recommitment to conservative social values, and a sharp cut in federal spending. He did not mention his support for a federal ban on abortion. Breaking with Trump, he also approved changes to Social Security for those under 40 to ensure the financial stability of the government-backed safety net program.
He spoke with authority, but political challenges from Pence loomed over his New Hampshire tour.
The host of Wednesday’s event, former state Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg, encouraged each attendee to donate $1 to the Pence campaign to ensure they meet the 40,000 individual donor threshold set by the Republican National Committee to qualify.
“They can give more,” Pence joked with a smile. He later added, “We are working around the clock to make sure we have enough donors to participate in this debate.”
Despite some laughter, Pence’s allies privately acknowledge that failing to qualify for the first GOP debate would be a political death sentence.
Pence’s national chairman, veteran Republican strategist Chip Saltsman, would only say, “We’re getting there” when asked how close the campaign was to the donor threshold.
Saltsman dismissed Pence’s struggles as a byproduct of the overcrowded field, which includes wealthy candidates like North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who offered gift cards to donors, and others like DeSantis, whose allied super PAC has raised more than $100 million.
“It’s a lot of ebb and flow,” Saltsman said. “And one thing I know for sure is that I haven’t seen a frontrunner in the summer go to the Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary in the winter yet.”
Sununu, the governor of New Hampshire, is also betting on the weight of history to help stop Trump. He noted that primary voters typically wait a few weeks before the primary to finalize their decision.
The New Hampshire primary is still six months away.
In an interview, Sununu warned that Trump had no chance of winning the general election and would drag the rest of the party with him if he was on the November ballot.
“I hope most people come to their senses,” Sununu said. “There’s still plenty of time for this roller coaster ride to unfold.”
Meanwhile, Pence seeks help from a higher power.
“This is a nation of faith,” he told the modest collection of primary voters gathered in Clegg’s backyard. “If we lead our party into a future built on those age-old conservative principles that have carried our party to victory and success for the American people for the past 50 years, and if we renew our faith in the one who has guided this great nation since they first set foot on Plymouth Rock – not too far from here – I truly believe the best days for the greatest nation on earth are yet to come.”