PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — With little to lose, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz began making his final pitch to New Hampshire Republicans Sunday as the ongoing volatility of the upcoming Granite State primary ominously bore down on several of his rivals for the GOP nomination.
“God bless the great state of New Hampshire!” he said to a packed house in an old-fashioned town hall building.
The stakes are low for Cruz here. New Hampshire is not a state where a candidate of his ilk — deeply evangelical — is ever expected to do well. But in the days between the Iowa caucuses — of which Cruz emerged the victor — and Tuesday's New Hampshire vote, the GOP nomination fight has taken on new levels of instability, the kind that could propel Cruz to a stronger-than-expected finish.
The period between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests is always a wild week in politics, a time when candidates can rise and fall in mere days, if not hours. This year, political survival for a handful of establishment contenders is on the line.
Cruz already has an Iowa victory under his belt, and will soon turn to Republican supporters better aligned with his message in Southern states in the coming weeks. But he is campaigning here in New Hampshire as if there is no tomorrow: Come Tuesday, he will have made at least 17 stops in a week’s time.
The pace is in line with his marathon Iowa campaign. The tone, however, has changed some. Instead of parables of his legal crusades for religious liberty, he ripped the U.S. Supreme Court for an eminent domain ruling — an issue that plays well with New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" libertarian brand of conservatism.
"I tell you what, I believe private property is a fundamental right of mankind," he said. "I believe the Constitution protects it, and if we have a president who puts principled constitutionalists on the court ... we will protect the private property rights of American citizens."
Despite the pitch, real estate magnate Donald Trump is likely to place first here. The real battle is for second place. Four "establishment" contenders — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — desperately need a strong finish here.
Cruz could displace them all and take second place, or his appeal to base voters could prove tone deaf here.
Few political observers are certain how this state's contest will end. Until Saturday night, the widely held assumption was that Rubio was surging and would place second, if not first.
But then the Florida senator stumbled badly at a Manchester debate, thanks to Christie's accusations that Rubio was overly reliant on rehearsed talking points.
When the day began Sunday morning in New Hampshire, there was little sense over where the race stood. Rubio's performance could be a career damaging misstep, on par with Gov. Rick Perry's "oops" debate moment, or the whole episode could be swept away with Super Bowl excitement.
But the exchange was on the mind of Teresa Cadorete, a Peterborough physician, at Cruz's sunday event. Walking out of the town hall, she facetiously marveled after Cruz’s town hall that he was not “scripted," a dig at Rubio’s debate stumble.
She said her vote is coming down to Trump or Cruz.
Should the pair end up the top two New Hampshire finishers, they would collectively deliver a withering blow to the GOP establishment.
But two days out, there is no time left to poll New Hampshire Republican primary voters' reactions to the drama. Political instability is in the air.
A chief contributing factor to the volatility is indecision. Many New Hampshire voters wait until they pull the curtain in the voting booth to decide.
Cadorete said that after attending at least five presidential campaign events over the last year, she will hold off on a decision until the moment she actually looks at the names on the ballot.
Did Cruz close the deal for her Sunday afternoon?
“Not yet,” she said. “He won’t until Tuesday when I vote. I leave it to the end.”
Harvey Sawyer from nearby Jaffrey also attended the event and was similarly unsure.
“I think from what I saw today, I could go for Ted Cruz,” he said. “I’m not saying that I will vote for him in the primary. I’m not saying that I won’t.”