The race to the New Hampshire primary is getting nastier by the hour as presidential candidates desperately seek to woo undecided voters on the eve of a contest that could change the dimensions of the White House race.
Donald Trump and Jeb Bush are trading deeply personal taunts, Marco Rubio is trying to bounce back from a mauling at the hands of Chris Christie in Saturday night’s Republican debate and history seems to be repeating itself for Hillary Clinton as her possible loss to Bernie Sanders in the first-in-the nation primary fuels rumors of a shake-up in her campaign.
Former President Bill Clinton is also in the thick of it after a caustic attack on supporters of the Vermont senator, while his former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, is getting heat for saying “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” — i.e. Hillary Clinton.
The latest CNN/WMUR daily tracking poll on Monday showed Sanders with a handsome 26-point lead over Hillary Clinton. On the Republican side, Trump maintained the lead he has held for months, 31% to next-best Florida Sen. Rubio with 17%. Three-quarters of the polling was completed before Saturday’s debate, so it was unclear whether he had been hurt by his rocky performance.
Among other candidates, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was third with 14%, significantly ahead of Ohio Gov. John Kasich at 10% and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 7%. Christie received 4%.
There are good reasons for the candidates, who collectively had at least 30 events in New Hampshire on Monday, to campaign right up to the finish line.
In the latest CNN/WMUR tracking poll, for example, 30% of likely Republican voters hadn’t made up their minds, nor had 16% of likely Democratic voters.
That reality is thickening the blizzard of attacks blanketing the Granite State because some candidates know that the primary could set the contours of the race for those who move on and snuff out the White House dreams of some Republicans who falter on Tuesday.
The two biggest questions heading into Tuesday are whether Rubio’s stumble under Christie’s ferocious fire at Saturday’s GOP debate will trigger a late slump in his support, and whether Trump’s wide lead will translate into strong voter turnout. The Democratic establishment, meanwhile, is waiting to see just how big Sanders’ expected victory will be.
Christie is crowing that his assault, which led a rattled Rubio to repeat the same line four times while playing into an impression that he is over-rehearsed, had changed the entire race and could stave off a predicted winnowing down of establishment candidates.
He also intensified his claims Monday that Rubio was not ready to lead.
“When the lights get that bright, you either shine or you melt, and we can’t afford to have a president who melts,” he said at a campaign event in Hudson, New Hampshire.
Bush also drilled down on the idea that Rubio is not yet ready to be president on CNN’s “New Day” on Monday: “He’s a gifted speaker, he’s a gifted person, but he has nothing in his background to suggest that he could make a tough decision.”
Christie, Bush and Kasich are hoping that Rubio’s rough night halts momentum he built up coming third in Iowa. A strong second place in the Granite State would enhance Rubio’s case that he is best-positioned to consolidate opposition to Trump and Cruz.
Rubio is trying to repair the damage from Saturday’s stumble, in which he repeatedly took refuge in what seemed a scripted attack on President Barack Obama when he was being challenged on his own record by Christie. The exchange played into the New Jersey Governor’s argument that his opponent is a slave to talking points.
Rubio has tried to turn the episode, which is still sending shockwaves through the campaign two days later, into an attack on journalists he claimed were desperate to halt his momentum and keen to defend the President — and defiantly rolled out exactly the same line he deployed in the debate.
“I don’t care how much it outrages the media, I’m going to keep saying it: Barack Obama is trying to change the United States of America,” Rubio wrote in a fundraising appeal to supporters.
Trump, for his part, hinted Sunday that he understands how crucial New Hampshire is to his campaign.
“I could say to you if I came in second and third I’d be thrilled, okay? I know all about expectations,” Trump told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday. “If I came in second I wouldn’t be happy, okay?”
Bush, who for once equaled or even got the better of Trump on the debate stage on Saturday, has been mounting a last stand in New Hampshire and on Monday lashed out at the former reality TV star on Twitter.
“You aren’t just a loser, you are a liar and a whiner,” Bush wrote in an apparent reference to Trump’s claims of irregularities in the Iowa caucus results.
Trump had a scathing response in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “He’s a stiff. He’s not a guy that can be president. He doesn’t have what it takes.”
He continued, “He’s a desperate person. He’s a sad and, you know, he’s a pathetic person. He doesn’t even use his last name in his ads. He’s a sad person who has gone absolutely crazy. He’s a nervous wreck.”
The Democratic race between Clinton and Sanders is also getting increasingly testy, with a clash over the former New York senator’s ties to Wall Street and her campaign’s attacks on his foreign policy.
On Sunday, Bill Clinton slammed the Vermont senator’s supporters who he said subjected opponents to “vicious trolling and attacks that are literally too profane often — not to mention sexist — to repeat.”
“The online campaign is, ‘Anybody who doesn’t agree with me is a tool of the establishment,'” Clinton argued.
Michael Briggs, spokesman for the Sanders campaign, called the comments “disappointing” in a statement to CNN.
But the former president told CNN that Sanders is fair game.
“It bothers me to be in an election where debate is impossible because if you disagree you are just part of the establishment,” he said.
Albright was also drawn into the crossfire following her remarks over the weekend, reflecting concern in the Clinton camp that Sanders is beating the former first lady among younger women.
“I said that I think that people need to understand who has been really fighting on their behalf on issues that are of interest to women, and clearly Hillary Clinton has,” Albright told Time Magazine.
And only hours from the primary, new clouds gathered around the Clinton campaign following a Politico report that the candidate and her husband were disappointed with the direction of her campaign and that a staff shakeup could be in the offing.
But Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta dismissed the report.
“There is zero truth to what you may be reading. It’s wrong. Hillary stands behind her team, period,” he wrote on Twitter.