Republican Presidential Hopefuls Vie At GOP Summit

by Kirsten O'Regan

As Hillary Clinton’s campaign kicks off in earnest, GOP presidential hopefuls converged on New Hampshire for the Republican Leadership Summit this weekend. The Nashua-based GOP gathering, intended to win the early-voting state’s citizens over to the Republican cause, seemed primarily to function as a Hillary Clinton takedown. As The New York Times reports, 19 presidential candidates and potential contenders verbally ambushed the Clinton campaign from the relative safety of the Crowne Plaza ballroom, in the biggest political soiree since Clinton announced her candidacy.

New Hampshire may have only four votes in the electoral college, but its primary is slated for January 2016 — making it the first state to vote in the country and thus a key battleground for any candidate hoping to become their party’s nominee. While Clinton is a clear front-runner (and the only official candidate so far) in the Democratic race, the Republican field is more densely populated and open to chance. Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, among others, all leapt into the fray at this weekend’s summit, equally intent on boosting their chances and crushing Clinton’s.

“The next president of the United States better be a Republican,” South Carolina Governor Lindsey Graham said, in a characteristic overture. “Let’s be clear: Hillary Clinton is a third-term Barack Obama.” This was clearly intended as an insult, as Graham went on to term Obama’s foreign policy a “miserable failure,” and one that has ensured “9/11 is coming again” courtesy of “these bastards” (international terror groups).

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Rand Paul, meanwhile, jumped from dwelling on Obama to directly criticizing Clinton’s leadership. In his speech Saturday, Paul delivered a comprehensive Clinton takedown, drawing on legacies of her political career: the chaos engulfing Libya, the State Department email scandal, and her foundation’s acceptance of donations from somewhat unsavory foreign nations. He particularly dwelled on her handling of the Benghazi attack, as secretary of state in 2012. “I think her dereliction of duty, her not doing her job should forever preclude her from holding high office,” Paul said, to thunderous applause.

Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, echoed Graham in his condemnation of Clinton as “a third term of Barack Obama” (this is clearly going to be a much-used phrase in the lead up to 2016). Walker characterized Clinton as an elitist (“I doubt that the presumptive nominee for the other party has ever been to Kohl’s before, let alone shopped in the last 15 to 20 years.”), and cast doubt on her ability to jump-start the U.S. economy.

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The attacks during the summit were pointed and, often, personal, with a couple fun references to Clinton’s recent Chipotle visit thrown in. But a Clinton spokesperson, asked to comment by the Times, declined to make a statement. Much attention was also focused on Obama’s term in office, with criticism of everything from his diplomatic efforts with Iran and Cuba to his economic record flying thick and fast. In between the concerted efforts to delegitimize Clinton’s candidacy and Obama’s presidency, the Republican hopefuls did squeeze in some policies of their own. Much of the message was economic, as the candidate’s attempted to exploit continued financial anxiety seven years after the global financial crisis kicked in.

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, has not yet announced his candidacy but is expected to run. “We will not win if we just complain about how bad things are,” Bush told the crowd over the weekend, arguing that economic growth needs to be sustained at a rate “where people no longer believe that the end is near, that their children will have more opportunities than they have, that they're willing to take risks again.” He plugged his own record on job creation.

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Some speakers, such as Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, even attempted to grapple with the country’s rising inequality. Rubio, who announced his candidacy earlier in April, lamented the situation of those Americans “living paycheck to paycheck.” He spoke of vocational training programs as an excellent, less debt-ridden option, for many prospective college students. Rubio has championed a tax plan that, he claims, would make it easier for those with lower incomes to better their lives.

Perry, meanwhile, alerted the crowd that he was ready to attempt a second presidential bid (after chronic back pain complicated his 2012 run), while Mike Huckabee's Fox News interview Friday and Saturday speech has ramped up expectations for the former Arkansas governor’s candidacy announcement. The Republican field is certainly heating up. As the Times notes, “The race for the 2016 Republican nomination has a mix of prominent candidates and lesser-known but fiery ones.” The Republican race certainly appears much more plural, currently, than the Democratic one — a fact that Bush darkly alluded to. “I don’t see any coronation coming my way,” he told the crowd.

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Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey — who many previously thought had perhaps missed his chance at a run — came out swinging. He avoided attacking the Democratic opposition entirely, instead focusing on his own policies, including drastic reforms to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Even if he didn’t mention Clinton, Christie did insert a swipe at Obama. “We can no longer afford to have weakness in the Oval Office,” he said. “We need strength and clarity and hard truths.”

Although the plurality of the Republican field perhaps appears to facilitate a more rowdy Democratic debate than the lonely Clinton campaign on the other side, it also means the GOP leadership is somewhat disordered, lacking a clear frontrunner. At least, for now, the candidates are engaged in attacking Clinton together. In a few months time, it seems likely that — given the usual way of primary battles — this political vitriol will be turned energetically on each other in a scramble for supremacy. This divisiveness, when it comes to pass, could make an assault on Clinton difficult to win.

The Guardian reports that according to a handful of the summit's 500-odd attendees, drinking in celebration on Friday evening, Marco Rubio so far was in the top spot, while Jeb Bush was unlikely to earn much of a New Hampshire following. Republicans prevailed in New Hampshire in 2000, but since then (in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 elections), the state has fallen to Democrats — hence the GOP candidates’ eagerness to reclaim the so-called Granite State.

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