GOP hopefuls borrow McCain's town hall playbook
"For better or worse, the curse of McCain is he set the standards for how you win in New Hampshire," said a top McCain adviser.
Concord, N.H. — In the summer of 1999, John McCain didn't have many big names backing his campaign for president. He didn't have much money, either, and even resorted at one point to giving away ice cream to drum up a decent-size crowd.
Enter the town hall.
Driven to "desperation," McCain decided to meet as many people as possible at as many of the Q&A events as he could. It took months for the strategy to pay dividends, but when it did, McCain was packing 'em in.
"It was just jammed," McCain said of one town hall, held at a fire house at 8 a.m. "That people would get up real early in the morning to go to a town hall with me — that was the first real indication that we had some momentum."
That momentum turned into a victory of 19 percentage points over George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary. He lost the 2000 nomination to Bush but later rode the same strategy to a victory in the state's 2008 primary — his first on the way to becoming the GOP nominee that year.
McCain will be back in New Hampshire on Saturday, campaigning for a friend and fellow U.S. senator, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham. He is one of the many candidates in the crowded GOP field who are hoping a town hall strategy will yield the same breakout success McCain enjoyed.
"For better or worse, the curse of McCain is he set the standards for how you win in New Hampshire," said Steve Duprey, a top McCain adviser and Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire.
None of the 17 candidates in the GOP field may be following the McCain playbook as closely as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who flew to New Hampshire the day he announced his candidacy. He's held seven town halls since his announcement and 15 so far this year as well as other public events.
"We've been here more than any other candidate," Christie said this past week. "We've held more town halls than anybody else. And the good news is that it's July. And so my view is we've got a lot of work left to do. So does everyone else in this race."
Christie's early ubiquity was captured in a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday that found 7 percent of likely New Hampshire Republican presidential primary voters had already had the opportunity to meet or see Christie in person. That figure was more than double any of his competitors.
Among them is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has held five town halls in the state since making his candidacy official last week. One was on Friday in Keene.
"The challenge for me is, you know, I'm the governor of Ohio," Kasich said. "I didn't go around the country trying to make a name for myself, so I don't have the big national name ID, but it seems like every day, we're doing a little bit better and people are signing on."
No one who has focused on such events, including former technology executive Carly Fiorina and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is at the top of early polls in the state. That perch is held by billionaire businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump. But political veterans in New Hampshire advise caution, since early polls are notoriously unreliable and the primary is many months away.
In the 2000 race, McCain's surge in New Hampshire took time. Joel Maiola, a longtime Republican activist who served as Bush's campaign manager in the state, said his team began to notice McCain picking up steam long before it registered in the polls. While Bush was holding large-scale events, McCain was spending three times as much time on the ground, connecting with voters on a more personal level.
This time, Christie's town hall events — they can last more than two hours — remind him the most of McCain's, Maiola said.
"I think that the governor's just sort of flying under the radar and is working his tail off," he said. "And I think there's definitely a bit of a buzz starting."
For many of New Hampshire's most passionate GOP voters, it's far too early to make a decision. They've not had enough time to see the candidates as they like to — up close and in person at a town hall.
"All things being equal, if the primary was tomorrow I'd really have to lean toward him," said Jim Skinner after seeing Christie at a recent event. "But I haven't seen all the candidates yet." His friend Alan Lane offered a similar non-commitment: "This has just begun, but he's up there."
Speaking from experience, McCain says there's plenty of time yet for any of the candidates to catch on.
"Some will ... and some won't, and word of mouth in New Hampshire is as important as television advertising," McCain said. "So I think you're going to see some significant shifts — most of them unexpected."