Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Opinion | Chris Sununu is the most wanted man in New Hampshire

Opinion | Chris Sununu is the most wanted man in New Hampshire

HOOKSETT, N.H. — It was noontime on a weekday, and Gov. Chris Sununu was on hand at the Oscar Barn Wedding Venue to welcome former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is having something of a boomlet in the polls here in the state that will hold its first-in-the-nation presidential primary in less than nine weeks.

Sununu was making a pitch not for any Republican candidate but for the primary itself, which he said gives New Hampshirites an opportunity to “look them in the eye, [evaluate] them as a person first, make sure that there’s stability there, make sure that there’s a coherent thought there.”

A woman in the crowd, obviously exasperated over Sununu’s refusal to show any leg about his own preference in the race, shouted: “Endorsement!”

Instead, Sununu coyly rhapsodized about the groundbreaking he had attended that morning for an athletic-shoe plant in nearby Londonderry.

“I endorse New Balance wholeheartedly,” he said.

Over the next 24 hours, Sununu would also show up at events with former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, where he was equally noncommittal about anything beyond his enthusiasm for the primary itself.

Conventional wisdom has it that — with a few notable exceptions — endorsements don’t tend to matter much in presidential politics. In Iowa, which will hold its caucuses the week before the New Hampshire primary, DeSantis has gotten nods from Gov. Kim Reynolds and, this week, from prominent evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats. But those endorsements were long expected, and it is unclear whether either can move the needle for the Florida governor’s struggling campaign there.

In New Hampshire, on the other hand, the political dynamic feels more fluid. With a more independent-leaning electorate, it is a swing state with a history of breaking late for the winner, often dealing a rebuke to whoever Iowa chooses.

All of which helps explain why, as the Boston Globe put it this week, the ebullient Sununu — a Trump critic who many here wish had run for president himself — has become “the state’s most sought-after undecided voter.”

Former New Hampshire attorney general Tom Rath, who has been a top adviser to more than a few GOP presidential campaigns, says of Sununu’s endorsement: “Of anything that’s left to happen up here, that would be the most important one.”

But can anything — or anyone — do much to put a dent in Donald Trump’s massive lead in the Granite State? According to the current average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics, the former president is holding steady with nearly a 30-point lead over the rest of the field.

Sununu, however, says he does not find Trump’s numbers daunting. “Well over 50 percent of the Republican core base voter wants someone else,” he said. The governor also predicted that with no contest on the Democratic side, as well as the fact that their party has moved its first primary to South Carolina, independents will be drawn to vote in the Republican contest “in record numbers, most of which won’t go for yesterday’s news in terms of Donald Trump.”

Now in his fourth term as governor, which he says will be his last, the 49-year-old Sununu’s popularity in New Hampshire is practically off the charts; in a fresh survey by The Post and Monmouth University, 81 percent of registered Republicans and those who have not declared a party affiliation — the universe of voters eligible to participate in the primary — said they approve of the job he is doing. But an almost identical percentage said a Sununu endorsement would make “no difference” in which candidate they support.

Sununu has not said precisely when he will make an endorsement, but promises that when he does, he will give it “110 percent.”

“That’s that’s the fun part. Are you kidding?” he told reporters outside the Haley event. “I’m not gonna do an endorsement and sit on my hands. When I do an endorsement is going to be a six, seven, eight, nine-week push, whatever it is, to really make sure that folks know where we are. I tend to not leave anything on the table.”

Beyond his own popularity, Sununu — whose father was also governor and whose brother represented the state in Congress as a House member and senator — has a political network that is broad and deep. “A lot of this campaign, as has always been the case in New Hampshire, is going to be one not just on the ground, but in the towns, talking to selectmen, talking to school board members, talking to local community leaders,” he said. “That’s really where the impact I think can be felt.”

But it’s still early, Sununu insists, and “a lot of folks are going to really wait to see where this thing goes in late December, early January, and make up their minds.” In the meantime, for both the governor and the state he leads, there’s plenty to enjoy about playing hard to get.

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