Home Featured The Messy G.O.P. Debate Didn’t Turn Off These Voters

The Messy G.O.P. Debate Didn’t Turn Off These Voters

The Messy G.O.P. Debate Didn’t Turn Off These Voters


The voters gathered at a brewery in Goffstown, N.H., to watch the second Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night were excited about many of the options on the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. They were also looking forward to having fewer of them.

“I’m hoping they’re going to narrow down the candidates,” said Jennifer Vallee, 45, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Goffstown. “I want to hear more from the candidates that actually have a fighting chance to make it towards the end.”

Ms. Vallee, a supporter of former President Donald J. Trump, was among 28 local Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who gathered at Mountain Base Brewery in this suburb of Manchester for an informal watch party and potluck organized by Lisa Mazur, a local state representative. Over barbecue and smoked Gouda dip, they considered the contenders, seeing more to like than dislike among the seven candidates vying for their votes.

“Who do we think did better than expected?” Jared Talbot, 46, a defense contractor employee and local school board member, asked as the debate wound down.

“DeSantis!” several people called out.

Although many in the group favored Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, they had been underwhelmed by his performance in the first Republican debate, on Aug. 23, and were hoping for a stronger showing on Wednesday. Many in the room were self-identified “parents rights” advocates, and cheered Mr. DeSantis’s criticism of college gender studies programs and his boast that “I ended up getting through Yale and Harvard Law School and somehow came out more conservative than when I went in.”

Several of Mr. Trump’s rivals for the nomination are banking on New Hampshire’s early primary, with its storied history of scrambling, or at least spicing up, presidential races, as their best hope for breaking the former president’s stride toward the nomination.

The debate watchers in Goffstown had seen many of the candidates in person during their dozens of appearances in the state in recent months. Although the crowd tilted toward Mr. DeSantis and the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, most candidates on the stage had their partisans — even Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota, who narrowly qualified for the stage hours before the debate. (“I’m always the person who likes the outlier,” John Lombo, 45, a hazardous materials auditor for UPS and the lone Burgum supporter in the room, explained.)

Many of them were using the debate as an opportunity to shop for vice-presidential favorites. “She’s passionate!” Mr. Talbot, who has endorsed Mr. DeSantis, said admiringly as Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations, clashed with Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator, late in the evening.

Ms. Mazur, who also supports Mr. DeSantis, was less impressed by the exchange. “I liked her in the first debate,” she said. “This time, it was a little much.”

Still, most of the crowd seemed impressed by the former governor’s feisty back-and-forth with Mr. Scott, whom she appointed to the U.S. Senate, which seemed to establish her mettle even as it made them question his.

“I’m looking to see who can hold their ground, because that is someone who can hold their ground in the long term,” Heather Pfeifer, 48, a home-schooling mother who lives in Goffstown, said. “I love Tim Scott, I’m just not sure he’s a strong enough candidate to get to the place he needs to be.”

She added, “I really think Haley might be my favorite.”

Mr. Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate, won a number of fans with his Aug. 23 debate performance. “I went into that debate really watching Ron DeSantis,” said Henry Giasson, a 44-year-old leather store owner and Army veteran, “and I came out watching Vivek Ramaswamy.”

Some attendees remarked appreciatively on Mr. Ramaswamy’s toned-down demeanor Wednesday night after his attention-grabbing turn in August. “He’s a brilliant speaker,” Mr. Giasson said.

When former Vice President Mike Pence took a jab at Mr. Ramaswamy’s patchy voting record — he has said he did not vote in the 2008, 2012 or 2016 elections — on Wednesday night, Mr. Giasson leaped to his defense: “Where’d that come from?” he said, adding sarcastically, “That was classy.”

In the Granite State, Republican candidates face an electorate uncommonly marbled with libertarians, moderates and independents — unaffiliated voters are allowed to vote in primaries. The state’s voters delight in unmaking inevitabilities and legitimizing long shots — among them Mr. Trump, whose landslide victory in New Hampshire in 2016 jolted the Republican Party into taking his candidacy seriously.

Mr. Trump remains the Republican primary favorite in New Hampshire by a large margin in the early polling in this election, too. But a recent CNN poll found him performing well below his national average in the state, with fewer than half of Republican voters naming him as their first or second choice. The same survey found Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Trump’s closest rival in early polling, in free-fall in New Hampshire, suggesting an open contest for second place at the very least.

Perhaps none of the candidates has invested as heavily in the state as Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and the only overtly anti-Trump candidate in the field, who launched his campaign in Goffstown and has made more than two-thirds of his campaign appearances in the state. But Mr. Christie’s moments in the debate were mostly met with silence from the Goffstown crowd.

“He’s the only one I’d take off the stage,” said Karen Monasky, 73, a retired occupational therapist and a Republican-voting independent who met Christie during one of his many swings through the area.

Still, reviewing the performances as the debate came to a close, several of the attendees conceded that Mr. Christie had a decent night.

“The goal is to beat Biden,” Mr. Lombo said. “Even Chris Christie, who I can’t stand, is better than Joe Biden.”


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