New Hampshire Is Make-or-Break for Several Republicans

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks to a young girl after a town-hall event in Durham, N.H., on Wednesday.

For three current or former Republican governors still running for president, next Tuesday’s primary is a make-or-break contest—and a strong finish by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio could render them all also-rans when the campaign moves beyond New Hampshire.

With stakes so high, the signs of stress were evident here Wednesday. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, sixth in the Real Clear Politics polling average of New Hampshire, declared the GOP primary here a two-man race between him and Mr. Rubio. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, frustrated by persistent questions about his appeal to core conservative Republican voters, insisted he is fighting for every vote. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush waged a two-front battle, arguing on television that he is superior to Mr. Rubio while his campaign aired a two-minute television ad attacking Donald Trump.

Messrs. Christie, Kasich and Bush are fighting to appeal to the party’s more centrist voters and business-focused donors, groups whom Mr. Rubio hopes to win after his better-than-expected third-place finish in Iowa on Monday.

The governors each need a solid showing here after each getting less than 3% support in Iowa. That contest and the one after New Hampshire, in South Carolina, tend to favor more conservative candidates. New Hampshire’s Republican electorate has fewer evangelicals and is less conservative than that of Iowa and South Carolina, according to exit polls four years ago.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the Iowa winner, is now certain to advance even if he loses New Hampshire. Mr. Trump placed second in Iowa and has been leading in polls here.

Jim Graczyk and his wife Darlene, who came to see a Kasich town hall in Raymond, said they are still deciding between the Ohio governor and Messrs. Christie and Rubio.

Mr. Graczyk, a retired electrical engineer from Atkinson, said he likes Mr. Christie’s bluntness, Mr. Kasich’s centrist politics and Mr. Rubio’s chance to defeat Messrs. Cruz and Trump. Mrs. Graczyk, a retired nurse, said she is looking for a candidate who can win a general election.

“After Iowa, we have to have somebody who is electable,” she said.

Paul Sanchez, a 74-year-old retiree from Bow, N.H., who is undeclared, said that there are too many establishment candidates in the race. He is weighing a vote for Mr. Christie or Mr. Kasich.

“There is room for only one governor,” Mr. Sanchez said at a Christie event in Bow. “The problem is electability from here on in.”

Jamie Burnett, a Republican operative here who was the New Hampshire political director for Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign, said only one of the four centrist candidates—Mr. Rubio and the current or former governors—would come out of the state in a strong position.

“There are two primaries going on here, the Trump primary, and what many people refer to as the party of four,” said Mr. Burnett, who isn’t working for any candidate but has endorsed Mr. Bush. “They are fighting for a prominent position coming out of New Hampshire that will help them moving forward.”

As much as the governors publicly discard the Iowa results, the Bush, Kasich and Christie campaigns must now contend with a New Hampshire electorate that is using the Iowa finish to judge their campaigns.

“I am just looking at the top two or three because some of the other candidates have fallen so far down in the polls that I just don’t know if they can win,” said Liz Thompson, an undecided small business owner from Alton, said at a Rubio event. “I’m not spending a lot of time considering the candidates who did not do well [in Iowa]. I am more focused on the viable candidates.”

At the start of the 2016 primary season last year, seven current or former governors were counted among the contenders. Their leadership and executive experiences were widely viewed as coveted assets. But in a race driven by GOP voters’ frustrated by their own party leaders, a billionaire businessman and two rookie senators have risen to the top.

Mr. Kasich acknowledged his plight Wednesday, saying he would end his campaign if he “gets smoked” next week. “We’re not going to be dragging around like some band of minstrels that can’t get people to come to our shows,” he said at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg Politics.

Mr. Christie, who has been trying to goad Mr. Rubio into a fight for weeks, declared something of a victory when the senator responded by telling a local television reporter that Mr. Christie has “had a rough couple of days.” Mr. Christie on Tuesday called the Florida senator a “boy in the bubble” for what he said was his repeated delivery of canned answers.

“This primary is down to between me and Marco Rubio and everyone else,” Mr. Christie told reporters Wednesday in Concord. “That’s why he’s engaged with me and I’m engaged with him.”

Mr. Kasich laughed off Mr. Christie’s Marco-and-me declaration. “I’m not going to talk about Chris Christie,” he said. “He’s a nice man. I’m not interested in talking about his view.”

Mr. Kasich’s top strategist, John Weaver, showed no such restraint. “Maybe he has a high fever,” he said of Mr. Christie. “He sounds frustrated that his political aspirations are coming to an end.”

Mr. Bush has enough campaign funds to continue even with a weak showing in New Hampshire, but party officials say there would be pressure for him to quit his campaign, and rival camps are already recruiting Bush donors to join them after New Hampshire.

The former governor was forced on CNN to answer for Sen. Lindsey Graham’s assertion that his campaign would be doomed if he loses to Mr. Rubio. “That’s not going to happen,” Mr. Bush said. “We’re doing great.”

While Mr. Rubio’s message hasn’t changed from his effort to win over Iowa’s conservatives, Mr. Kasich’s success here depends on attracting votes from independents—many of whom say they are repelled by appeals to evangelical voters Mr. Rubio made in Iowa.

Charles Hoepf, of Chester, N.H., said after watching Mr. Kasich in Raymond—the first political event he said he attended in person since the 1968 Hubert Humphrey campaign—that he would back the Ohio governor. The retired corporate pilot, a political independent, had been considering voting for Hillary Clinton in the state’s Democratic primary.

“I think New Hampshire voters want candidates to be more in the middle,” Mr. Hoepf said. “The real colors will start to show from the voters here next week.”

There is some acknowledgment among each of the candidates that only one of them can survive next week.

Mr. Christie on Wednesday declared that he would be the only one left standing when the campaign shifts to South Carolina. “The rest of the guys are all nice guys,” he said in Concord. “But I’ve been the leader of this group.”

Mr. Bush’s campaign published a full-page advertisement in the Union Leader of Manchester Wednesday featuring an open letter from former Florida state house speakers urging people here to reject Mr. Rubio and vote for Mr. Bush to “reset the race for the Republican nomination by voting for a trusted conservative.”

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