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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Stumping on July 4, Trump’s rivals pitch themselves to early-state voters

Signs for Donald Trump’s campaign in the back of an Iowa Republican truck before an Independence Day parade in Urbandale, Iowa, on July 4, 2023.

By Jazmine Ulloa and Jonathan Weisman

At a high school cafeteria in Merrimack, New Hampshire, earlier this week, where patriotic music blasted from the speakers and the lunch tables were decked in star-spangled napery, Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota mingled with families who were digging into eggs, sausage and pancakes at a Fourth of July breakfast hosted by the local Rotary Club.

Nelson Disco, 88, one of the prospective voters in the small crowd, had a couple of questions for him. What was he running for? And with which party?

“You’ve got some competition,” Disco exclaimed, as the North Dakota governor told him he was seeking the Republican nomination for president.

But Burgum was undeterred: “Feeling great” about the race, he said.

It was the final Fourth of July before New Hampshire’s first-in-the nation Republican primary, set for February, and the famed kingmaking caucuses in Iowa — plenty of time to make up ground, but it was clear for the darkest of dark horses who were burning shoe leather Tuesday that there was a lot of ground to make up.

Some better-known competitors were in New Hampshire too. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is in a distant second place in the Republican primary polls to former President Donald Trump, walked in two parades, including one that also drew Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is still well back in the pack. The weather was less than agreeable: DeSantis, Scott and others walking in the afternoon parade in Merrimack, New Hampshire, were soaked when a rainstorm swept through.

Independence Day campaigning is a tradition in New Hampshire and Iowa, as old as the caucuses and the primary in those states. That would be more than a century of front-runners and also-rans at the parades, picnics and pancake breakfasts of the Granite State. This year, however, there was a twist: The prohibitive front-runner, Trump, skipped the hustings, staying home with his family and firing off vulgar social media posts.

Yet the minions of his campaign and his own bulky shadow still hung heavily over his competition.

In Urbandale, Iowa, where Trump’s former vice president and current competitor, Mike Pence, was marching in the parade, spectators broke into a chant — “Trump, Trump, Trump” — as he passed by.

In the old days — before super political action committees flooded the airwaves, social media brought politicians’ messages directly to voters’ smartphones and partisans were glued to their favored cable news shows — showing up on the Fourth of July really mattered.

“Retail has always been mostly theater, but now it’s all a performance for the cameras, not about meeting regular people and listening to their concerns,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee.

This year, Trump’s rivals hoped it still did matter. In Merrimack, New Hampshire, volunteers and supporters backing DeSantis waited to walk with their candidate in the Fourth of the July parade there, standing near a dance troupe in hot pink shirts, a wooden float filled with members of the Bektash Shrine Clowns and a yellow school bus decorated as the boat from the Boston Tea Party.

But it was another Republican presidential hopeful, Scott, who caused a stir first, showing up on the parade route trailed by a passel of photographers and television cameras.

“Hopefully some of those voters will become our voters,” Scott told reporters when asked his thoughts on the people in DeSantis and Trump gear who were coming up to shake his hand. “But at the end of the day, we thank God that we have folks that are committed to the country, committed to the concept that the conservative values always work.”

Outside a pancake breakfast in Merrimack, New Hampshire, former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas and his wife, Lynlie Wallace, mixed with runners at a road race.

Hurd, a moderate Republican and a fierce critic of Trump’s who is trying to get his fledgling presidential campaign out of the starting gate, said he had just finished touring the northern border near Vermont, which he said faces problems similar to those at the southern border in his home state: low resources and increased drug trafficking. Those were the sorts of issues he wanted to tackle, he said. But for now, he added, he was just happy to simply be out shaking hands.

“Today is about meeting people, right?” Hurd said. “Not everybody is doom scrolling on social media or consuming cable news.”

And Trump? “I’m sure people are thankful he’s not out,” he said. “He comes with a lot of baggage.”

If there were glimmers of hope for the dark horses, it came from voter acknowledgment of that baggage, which now includes felony charges in New York connected to the payment of hush money to a porn star and federal felony charges in Miami accusing him of misusing highly classified documents and obstructing the government’s efforts to retrieve them.

In Iowa, Jim Miller, 73, was sitting along the Urbandale parade route with his wife and other family members. He said he had voted for Trump twice but had been disappointed in his attitude. He wants a candidate who puts being American ahead of being a Republican or a Democrat.

Asked to compare Pence with Trump, Miller said: “Not even close. I’d take Pence any day.”

As for Burgum, he expressed an understanding of just how steep his climb would be to even get into contention for his party’s presidential nomination. The name recognition challenge is “familiar,” he said. But he also noted that people had underestimated him when he left a lifelong career in the private sector to run for governor in 2016.

He won that race by 20 percentage points, and he has not been seriously challenged in North Dakota since.

Not everyone was in the dark on his campaign. A volunteer, Maureen Tracey, 55, rushed up from the back of the room to ask for a selfie with him. She said she liked Burgum because, like Trump, he seemed “different from a politician.” But unlike Trump, she added, Burgum seemed to be someone she could trust.

Trump “has hurt too many people, and when you hurt so many people, there is no trust,” Tracey said.

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