During a speech at a Nashua, New Hampshire, hotel on Friday afternoon, one of the ballroom doors opened and someone whispered to a volunteer standing inside, asking who was on stage speaking. The volunteer—presumably the sort of political junkie willing to spend an April day stuck in a room with 600-plus people just to have the chance to hear Republicans who might be running for president—hesitated. "He just started," she said, rapidly paging through her agenda and finally digging up the name. It turned out the speaker was former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who, apparently, is running for president.
At least 19 possible Republican presidential candidates were in New Hampshire this weekend, convening on the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit, hosted by the New Hampshire Republican Party at Crowne Plaza Nashua. To GOP activists, the unusual depth of their 2016 field is a point of pride—unlike the "coronation" Democrats are holding for Hillary Clinton , Republican voters are sifting through all the possibilities to find the ideal candidate. The trouble is that, for people at the bottom of a field this big, the simple fact that they're running seems to signal a certain lack of rationality.
To most civilians, running for president looks like a horrible process, a life of bad diner food, hundreds of hours crammed into cars and buses, and conversations with suburban dads who want to share their detailed plans for stopping ISIS. If you actually have a shot at becoming the most powerful person in the world, then maybe it's worth it.
But what about Gilmore, who gave up on running for president in 2008 to seek a Senate seat and couldn't even pull that off? Or one-time Hewlett Packard CEO and no-time elected official Carly Fiorina ? Or former New York governor George Pataki, who, like Gilmore, doesn't even make it on to the list of candidates pollsters ask about, despite having visited New Hampshire, the first-in-nation primary state, eight times since the fall? Or Dennis Michael Lynch, who—well, don't worry, no one else has heard of him either.
At the summit, they all seemed to believe they could be the next president—or at least put up a good front for the 17 minutes they were permitted to stand in front of a huge American flag and talk to hundreds of people.
Fiorina in particular appeared determined to position herself as a legitimate candidate, spinning her lack of political experience as a refreshing change from insider politics while also casually mentioning meetings she's had with Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu. Casting herself as a frontrunner—rather than a contender for 10th place in the polls—Fiorina focused her speech on complaints about Obama's America.
"People fear we are losing something," she said. "What they fear we are losing is the sense of limitless possibilities that has always defined this nation."
Like Fiorina, Gilmore didn't waste a moment of his 17 minutes acknowledging the unlikely nature of his candidacy. Instead—perhaps taking advantage of the fact that most reporters ignore his presence—he threw some bleeding-red meat to the audience of conservative activists.
"President Obama does not believe in America," he said, revving up the crowd. "He doesn't believe in the America that I believe in and that you believe in."
This became the chorus of Gilmore's speech. He told the crowd that since Obama wants to raise the capital gains tax, he must not believe in the American ideal of economic growth. And since the president hasn't intervened in Russia or the Middle East enough to satisfy Gilmore, he doesn't believe in America's leadership role in the world.
Lynch's message was even more radical, which is perhaps fitting for the least likely candidate of all. A conservative filmmaker with a pretty face and polished public speaking skills, Lynch is nevertheless unfamiliar to even the most serious politics nerds. "I'm not even a dark horse," he told the audience. "I'm like a dark pony."
The way Lynch tells it, his path toward politics involved a series of fateful events, starting with the September 11 attacks, when he witnessed people jumping from the towers. "It changes your life, changes the direction of your life," he said. He went on to direct political films. And after seeing the owner of a contracting business holding a sign protesting illegal immigration, he took that on as a signature issue.
Lynch said he's running for president because the American people have called for him to do it, claiming that he's gotten thousands of letters from people "thirsty for a fresh face." If elected, he told the audience, he won't just try to secure the borders—he'll deport everyone here illegally "in the most humane way possible." Lynch is also for a flat tax, unconditional support for Israel, and some vague stuff about cutting business regulations.
Compared with Lynch, Pataki offered a pretty mainstream political message—anti-Obamacare, anti–Common Core, and pro–staying the hell away from any discussion of abortion and gay rights. But, like Lynch, he seemed convinced the world was waiting for him to enter the presidential race.
He acknowledged that, to New Hampshire politics junkies, it might look like "every four years, Pataki shows up thinking about running." But, he insisted, "this time things are different." They're different, apparently because "I've never seen the world, in my lifetime as inflamed—in flames—as it is" and because Washington "believes it is our master, not our servant." Never mind that this is pretty much rhetoric he could have used at any given time in the past.
Of course, actually becoming president is only one of the potential prizes of a campaign. It's hard to tell a delusional quest for power from a savvy bid for a Fox News show (except in the case of Donald Trump's perennial pretend-campaign-slash-reality-show-commercial). Someone like Lynch, who's personal brand is unfamiliar even to the most engaged conservatives, could have plenty to gain from a failed campaign.
In fact, a number of conservative activists in attendance seemed particularly impressed with Lynch's performance. Sylvia Manley, who recently moved to New Hampshire from Texas and was excited to see so many candidates up close, thought he was great, even if she couldn't quite remember his name. "I thought the last guy was really good," she said moments after Lynch wrapped up. "He'll make some noise in the Republican Party." As for the former New York governor, who spoke right before Lynch, Manley was more familiar with him, but had less to say about his speech. "Pataki?" she said. "He's George Pataki."
Vicki Schwaegler, an official with the New Hampshire Republican Party, said she thinks having lots of candidates, however marginal, is a net positive for her party. Young activists in particular can find work at a campaign that's both aligned to their particular political interests and small enough that they can make a real difference. "The kids see it as an opportunity to become engaged in something new and something big," she said.
To Schwaegler, the political scene is sort of like 2008 in reverse, with activist energy focused not on electing Barack Obama but on repudiating his policies.
"I just find it so—what's the word for it? It gives me hope," she said.
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