Fierce battle for second place in New Hampshire Republican race

Video: Does Marco Rubio have a Barack Obama problem?

Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio has taken the heat in New Hampshire for his youth and inexperience. Gov. Chris Christie used Saturday’s GOP debate in Manchester, NH as a chance to compare the first-term Florida senator to the inexperience of Pres
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Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio has taken the heat in New Hampshire for his youth and inexperience. Gov. Chris Christie used Saturday’s GOP debate in Manchester, NH as a chance to compare the first-term Florida senator to the inexperience of Pres

All the clichés about the New Hampshire presidential primary are true.

It snows.

Candidates face real people in historic town-hall buildings, just like they did hundreds of years ago.

And rebellious voters don’t care how the race looked after the Iowa caucuses. They will make up their own minds, thank you very much, and preferably at the last possible minute, just in case anything changes.

That offers hope to the contenders, who seem to organize their frenzied schedules thinking maybe one more TV interview aboard a campaign bus, one more rally, one more casual stop at a diner or a pub or a factory will help clinch a victory.

The candidates did their best Monday to finish on a strong note. But here’s is what clear about Tuesday’s election — the first real election in the 2016 race: not much.

Bernie Sanders is way up on Hillary Clinton, polls in the Democratic race show, though Clinton eked out a victory in Iowa. But New Hampshire was good to her in 2008 — she won here after losing Iowa to Barack Obama — and she brought in her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to blast Sanders in the two days before the primary.

Donald Trump appears to hold an ample lead on the Republican side. But he was ahead last week in Iowa, too — though not nearly as comfortably — and, with a limited ground operation, wound up second. In New Hampshire, it took him until Monday to participate in voter question-and-answer sessions in intimate settings, the kinds of events that are a staple here.

And most polls show a fierce battle for second place: A Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush within three percentage points (14.4-11.3 percent).

Cruz, the Iowa winner, didn’t get a bump in New Hampshire, even as he tried to make a play for libertarians who had previously supported Rand Paul. On Monday, he chose instead to highlight his campaign’s stronger presence in upcoming primaries in South Carolina and the Deep South, in an attempt to lower expectations on how he’ll do in New Hampshire.

Rubio, who did see his popularity climb after his third-place Iowa result, got shredded by Chris Christie in a Saturday debate watched by many a New Hampshire voter. With a renewed sense of urgency, he made more campaign stops Monday than anyone else (seven) as a couple of hundred volunteers who traveled from Florida confronted the weather to reach voters.

And then there’s the battle of the governors — Christie, Bush and Kasich — all of whom felt that their debate outing Saturday gave them an opening to survive the “First in the Nation” primary. Case in point: All released schedules Monday of their campaign events beginning Wednesday — in South Carolina, the next state to vote.

So jumbled is the New Hampshire outcome that campaigns were still shifting their strategies right before Tuesday. Bush started needling Kasich. Rubio’s allies turned advertising dollars away from anti-Cruz ads and toward anti-Bush ads. Trump continued to attack Bush (“He’s a sad person who has gone absolutely crazy,” Trump told CNN) because — well, because he’s long been Trump’s favorite target.

The nonstop political action appears to have put some of the candidates in a reflective mood — perhaps because they’re approaching an inflection or ending (or near-ending) point to their campaigns.

Monday morning at a Manchester diner, Rubio explained to a group of tourists from the Netherlands that the GOP candidate field was “bigger than normal.”

“You’re going to win, right?” one of them asked.

“Sure!” Rubio said. “It’s just going to take a little longer, that’s all.”

Christie told employees at Dyn, a Manchester tech company, that he’s “incredibly grateful for the time over the past 71 days you all have given me” — though he also poked voters for taking so long to make up their minds.

“You New Hampshire folks are like the greatest shoppers in the world,” he joked. “I’m like, ‘Tick-tock, tick-tock’ … What are stores like on Christmas Eve in New Hampshire? It must be like hell on wheels here, man.”

Bush, too, told a Rotary Club in Nashua, “how much I’ve enjoyed campaigning here.”

“For a while, I didn’t want to show up in New Hampshire because I didn’t want any speculation about whether I was going to run or not,” he admitted. “I’m a better person — and I’m certainly a better candidate — because of the near-hundred events that I’ve done.”

“I’m humbly asking for your support on Tuesday,” he concluded, “and I will not let you down.”

Miami Herald political writer Patricia Mazzei is in New Hampshire for the primary. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei

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