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Even in absence, Trump weighs on minds of GOP candidates and voters at Nashua summit

Colonial reenactors and political aides mingle in a hallway at the Sheraton Hotel in Nashua, October 13, 2023, during the New Hampshire Republican Party's FITN Leadership Summit.
Josh Rogers
Colonial-era reenactors, political aides and journalists mingle in a hallway at the Sheraton Hotel in Nashua, Oct. 13, 2023, during the New Hampshire Republican Party's FITN Leadership Summit.

Donald Trump may not have bothered to come to Nashua this weekend for a gathering of several hundred local Republican voters and 10 of his rivals for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. But the former president has a gift for remaining top of mind, particularly for his opponents, who are reminded in every poll that he is on track to remain the party’s standard bearer in 2024.

And as candidates made their case at the New Hampshire Republican Party’s FITN Leadership Summit over the course of the weekend, Trump was often a presence — either explicitly or by implication.

“We can’t nominate or elect a convicted felon, and I’ve been pretty clear about that,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told the crowd, to a smattering of boos. Christie has staked his entire candidacy on an anti-Trump message; the other Republicans who spoke over were more circumspect in how they spoke of Trump.

Take businessman Vivek Ramaswamy: “It will take a general from the next generation to lead us to the next generation.”

Or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: “We need a president who can serve two terms, who has a record of winning big elections.”

Or former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley: “You gotta leave the negativity, and the baggage and the headlines of the past behind, and move forward with the new issues and the bigger solutions to go forward.”

Outside the suburban hotel ballroom where the candidates spoke, there was plenty of agreement about the need to defeat President Joe Biden next year, but little consensus when conversations turned to precisely how the party should go forward in 2024.

“I haven’t picked anyone yet other than: I’m not for Trump,” said Mike Moffett, a GOP state representative from Loudon. “I wish that other candidates would drop out so that Republicans could coalesce around Nikki or DeSantis, and I think that Trump would lose if it was down to one on one in that fashion.

Moffett’s fellow state lawmaker, Jose Cambrils, disagreed.

“President Trump will win even if he is in jail,” he said.

Cambrils stressed his support for Trump doesn't mean he dislikes the other Republicans in the race. Cambrils said he admires plenty of them, including Christie and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

But he said his support for Trump was tactical.

“Leadership is situational,” he said. “You may want to have the nice guy for a certain situation, a certain period, but in other circumstances you call for a guy who is going to wield an iron hammer. And in order to get this county back on track I believe you need somebody with the personality of Donald Trump.”  

That view isn’t universal among New Hampshire Republicans these days. Victoria Gulla of Spofford is a staunch DeSantis backer. She says Trump’s reaction to Hamas’s recent attack on Israel — he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and called Hezbollah “very smart” — is just the latest proof the party needs to reject him.

“He’s just a centimeter deep in his knowledge,” Gulla said of the former president. “He’s just ‘blah, blah, blah, me, me me, Netanyahu was mean to me.’ I mean: Shut up, shut up! That’s not helping anything.”

Other activists said they worry the party — and the country — are now at the point where agreement about what constitutes common purpose can feel far-fetched. Sandra Ziem of Nashua is a self-described conservative Republican who’s undecided in this race but says she likes Haley.

“We need unity now,” Ziem said. “Always, that’s what’s made us strong. Because even in our differences we could reach across and seek common goals. Now we don't seem to be able to do that. I was on the school board for 14 years. People came to the school board giving us the finger. You don’t cross bridges doing that.”

But other Republicans were quick to stress they see no point in traditional notions of political comity. Jon Linowes, of Lyman, came to the weekend’s GOP summit with a January 6th themed virtual pinball game he designed. Linowes said he feels Trump was cheated out of a second term, and said no matter who the party nominates, they will be vilified, by what he termed a biased media and Democrats.

“If Trump is not the candidate, if it’s DeSantis, they are going to turn on him just as viciously as the Hamas terrorists turned on the Israelis,” Linowes said. “That is how the Democrat Party is these days.”

Agreement on a common enemy is no small thing in politics. But agreement on a nominee is what Republicans will eventually need. As Primary Day gets closer, that question will only get more pressing for New Hampshire Republicans.

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