The shape of the Republican presidential nomination race and the fate of the traditional New Hampshire primary were crystallized by three town hall meetings in the state last week.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, at the Elks Lodge in Salem, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, at the Historical Society of Cheshire County in Keene, each had healthy give-and-take sessions with more than 100 voters that lasted more than an hour. These were in the tradition of New Hampshire politics.
In between those forums, Donald Trump packed a Derry auditorium with 20 times as many people for a gathering that more closely resembled an angry revival meeting or professional wrestling match.
For more than a half century, New Hampshire has been a proving ground for vetting and testing presidential hopefuls, forcing them to hone their political and policy knowledge. If the Trump model prevails, it not only could change the fabric of the party but also could spell an end to this substantive, searching type of retail politics.
The town halls of Bush and Kasich, the top two mainstream Republican candidates, weren’t absolute models of thoughtful citizen engagement; there were confrontational moments. Somebody asked Bush whether he’d been on a clandestine C-130 that the questioner alleged had ferried Saudi agents out of the United States the day after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Kasich was grilled on Social Security by Jane Lang, with the Alliance for Retired Americans. The demonstrative governor went over and hugged her. Asked later about his answer, she replied: “What answer?”
These two sessions featured pretty good questions and reasonably thoughtful answers on jobs, the environment, Russia, Social Security, abortion and disabilities. That’s the New Hampshire way.
By contrast, the Trump rally was almost content-free. The real estate mogul mixed insults, invective, bravado and bluster. He said that Jeb Bush was “dumb” and that Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential contest because “he choked.”
Asked beforehand by a reporter to list specific achievements to back his claim to be a champion of women’s issues, Trump responded: “Nobody will be better on women’s health issues than Donald Trump.” That was it.
When a woman asked one of the few substantive questions at the town hall – whether he would include more policy prescriptions on his website – the Republican front-runner began discoursing on his business acumen and recalled “scooping up the Doral Hotel.”
The crowd, young and old, lapped it up. Ken Brand, a 56- year-old Derry resident who periodically leapt to his feet yelling, “Bring it on, Donald,” loved the message: “He’s going to build that wall to keep Mexicans out and ship those 11 million illegals the hell out of here.”
Trump is setting the agenda, dominating the debate in New Hampshire. As Kasich emerged from an education forum in Londonderry, the first three questions he was asked were about Trump and immigration. Bush had a similar experience in Keene, only with more questions about Trump.
Trump belittles most of his opponents – though he praises Sen. Ted Cruz and the neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and has spared Kasich – but displays special venom toward Bush.
The Bush camp says this will energize their campaign as their candidate fights back by citing all of Trump’s non- conservative positions and telling voters that his anti- immigration initiatives – building a wall on the border that Mexico will pay for, deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants, ending birthright citizenship and remittances to home countries – “are not going to happen.”
If this were an academically scored debate, Bush would win easily on substance. But it’s more like a street brawl, and Trump is on familiar ground.
There still are 170 days before the New Hampshire contest, which often has selected the ultimate nominee or sent a resounding message about the general election. The state’s voters break late and are unpredictable, which is why many politicos here suspect the Trump phenomenon will fade. It didn’t look that way in Derry.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view