April 12, 2014: Day One of the 2016 #FITN campaign?
By JOHN DiSTASO
When the New Hampshire presidential primary is history sometime during the first few months of 2016, the political observers, the strategists, the media and even the voters can look back on April 12, 2014 as the day the campaign was launched.
Not officially, of course. But as a practical matter. It will be the beginning of the contest for the hearts and minds of the conservative wing of the state GOP.
The “Freedom Summit” to be held on Saturday by the conservative advocacy groups Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Citizens United is a Republican event. And there will be plenty of Democratic events.
But this “cattle call” (if you will) will be the first event at which anywhere from three to possibly six possible presidential candidates gather in one place on one day for the first time.
Last year, Democrats had Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley speak at a major fund-raiser. But let’s face it, until Hillary Clinton comes to the state (and she will probably do so this year for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen), there won’t be as much excitement generated on the state political scene as will be spurred by this event.
The big draws on the presidential front are Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky as well as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. There will be no Jeb Bush and no Chris Christie. No one conventionally identified with the more moderate (relatively speaking) GOP “establishment.”
At some point down the road there will be an establishment candidate. The day-long event on Saturday will begin to define what could be a long battle to become the conservative alternative to whoever emerges from the establishment wing.
Others to speak who are mentioned in connection with presidential runs, but far less likely to run, are Donald Trump, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Iowa U.S. Rep. Steve King.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte will be the first elected official to speak. It should be interesting to see the reception she gets with this conservative group. And how will she and Cruz interact?
Also speaking are Utah Sen. Mike Lee, Tennessee U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, author and talk show host Laura Ingraham and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.
Who has the most to gain or lose at this event? Republican activists we’ve spoken to say Cruz.
While he is known nationally as well as Paul due to his strong Tea Party ties, Cruz has been to New Hampshire only once so far for a speaking engagement – a small state party fundraiser at the home of former Ambassador Joseph Petrone in Dublin.
But in New Hampshire, where activists and voters want to get to know a candidate and decide late, Cruz, if he is serious about competing here, has to begin to cultivate a following, and he is expected to begin on Saturday.
Paul has the makings of a grassroots organization in place in some supporters of this father, who finished second to Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential primary.
Huckabee was in the state just a few weeks ago, quietly, and met with his small cadre of supporters – Deb Vander Beek, Bob Clegg, Cliff Hurst. They urged him to run.
Meanwhile, both Paul and Cruz are coming in early for other events to help the NHGOP.
Huckabee, due to his television schedule at Fox News, is expected to fly in hours before the event and then head to Harvard for a speaking engagement. But the betting is that he’ll be back.
Meanwhile, there will be a big crowd. The Executive Court will be full with about 700 on hand, we’re told.
For all of the speakers, but especially Cruz, Paul and Huckabee, this is their first chance to test their message on a big stage, with a huge media contingent on hand and a live broadcast on C-SPAN.
“You have,” noted one conservative who will be there, “a 700-member focus group on hand. The speakers will be to see right away how they resonate.”
For the audience, it will be a chance to start to get a feel for these potential (and likely) candidates.
And lots of contact info will be exchanged for follow-up not far in the future.
The vast majority of the crowd will be Granite State conservative with a sprinkling of out-of-staters.
Huckabee, who finished third in the 2008 presidential prirmary with 11 percent in the midst of the “Huckaboom” that led up to and followed his victory in the Iowa caucus eight days earlier, will have privilege, and challenge, of speaking last, following some four hours of speakers.
A simple test for him will be simply how many of the 700 are still in the room when he speaks at approximately 3:30 p.m.
We understand that because of the way the speakers were rolled out, with Paul announced prior to Cruz, the crowd is expected to tilt slightly in favor of the libertarian, rather than the Tea Party, crowd. We’ll see.
Who will be the story that night? Hard to say, but the focus will be on Cruz, mostly because it’s his de facto New Hampshire debut. How will his Tea Party brand, so well-known and controversial nationally, translate to New Hampshire?
And of course the story will also be New Hampshire, where it all begins – still again.