Rubio, Bush, Kasich join contenders in NH GOP presidential pageant

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NASHUA, N.H. With New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary election less than three weeks away, presidential contenders are sprinting to the finish, reaching out to as many voters in as many ways as they possibly can. For most of the Republicans, that meant a trip to Nashua on Saturday for a pageant of speeches dubbed the “First-in-the-nation Republican Town Hall.”

The candidates that mounted the Nashua stage for review are by now familiar to those who have followed the race. Nearly 1,000 of the cognoscenti filled a hotel ballroom for the event, organized by the New Hampshire Republican Party, and had the chance to hear from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Hewlett Packard chief Carly Fiorina, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. All stuck to their key issues.

Fiorina, for example, reminded the crowd on multiple occasions that she has been the candidate who has been most critical of Planned Parenthood of America while Paul repeatedly ripped the interventionist policies and federal surveillance practices of President Barack Obama’s administration.

There were some notable absences, however, as the Granite State frontrunner, New York billionaire  Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who is among his closest rivals, didn’t participate. Trump and Cruz spent at least part of the day in Iowa, where the Texan surged ahead of the Manhattanite in December, only to lose the lead this month, according to a average of recent voter surveys. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went home as his state hunkered down in the face of an oncoming blizzard.

Dr. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who briefly led in New Hampshire polls before fading, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also opted for Iowa events on Saturday. The Hawkeye State holds the first contest of the 2016 primary campaign with party nominating caucuses on Feb. 1, followed about a week later by New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary.

Kasich, who has surged to trail only Trump in recent New Hampshire voter surveys, reminded the crowd about his success turning around Ohio’s budget woes  and noted that another town hall-style meeting he plans to hold Sunday will mark the 75th he has held in the Granite State, the most of any candidate for this presidential campaign.

“I ain’t leaving for quite a long time,” Kasich added as the crowd cheered.

But his answer to a student’s question left some scratching their heads.

Asked why he supports Common Core, a controversial uniform education initiative Kasich has backed and implemented in his state, the Ohio governor appeared to be caught off-guard. The question came from Sean Dorosh, a middle school student from North Reading, Massachusetts.

“I’ll tell you what I believe, and it’s not about Common Core I don’t even know what that all means but what I want in Ohio and what I want in every state is high standards and local control,” Kasich said.

Critics have said Common Core does the opposite, granting too much education control to the federal government.

Like Kasich, Bush has also been blasted by conservatives for supporting Common Core as the chief executive of Florida. Bush however didn’t discuss public education Saturday.

He did, however, delve into policy specifics. At one point, Bush playfully asked the crowd if there were “any other wonks or wonkettes out there.”

One thing Bush said he’d like to bring to the White House job is line-item veto authority over budgets, reminding the audience that as Florida governor, he became known to some as “Veto Corleone.”

“Twenty-five-hundred separate line items in the budget totaling $2.5 billion,” Bush said, describing his robust exercise of the gubernatorial red pen. “Government shouldn’t grow faster than our ability to pay for it.”

Rubio, who went first, took the stage just after 8:30 a.m., never mentioned his fellow Floridian but reminded listeners that “the establishment has spent $25 million attacking me.”

“That’s not grassroots money, those are big chunks from checks written by people who said I have to wait in line and wait my turn,” Rubio noted.

Rubio focused much of his time on Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady of the U.S. The Florida senator reminded the crowd that his Cuban immigrant parents worked long hours in the service industry to scrape by and raise a family, and provided a bit of detail about his own struggles to climb the American economic ladder.

“Hillary Clinton cannot lecture me about student loans because I had a student loan,” Rubio said. “She can’t lecture me about people living paycheck-to-paycheck because I grew up living paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Paul, Rubio’s Senate colleague, used much of his time focusing on what he described as the “unholy alliance” between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to government spending. The “dirty little secret,” according to Paul, is that Republicans are the “loudest voices right now for increasing federal spending.” But he said the two parties have different priorities, allowing the leaders of both to broker deals so that Republicans get more money for such things as the military while with Democrats gain funding increases for domestic programs, including welfare.

“Republican leadership actually went along with the president to raise the debt ceiling,” Paul noted.

Fiorina took that theme in another direction in her remarks. She focused on “politics being an inside game,” a theme she has repeatedly railed against. But she also went directly after Clinton, “who sits inside the system, raking in millions by selling access and influence.”

Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have been criticized for accepting enormous speaking fees from a variety of companies and other organizations since leaving office.

Fiorina drew laughs and applause when she mentioned the people at the other end of such transactions: those who seek to exert influence over elected officials.

“We have people like Donald Trump sitting outside the system, making billions by buying off people like Hillary Clinton,” Fiorina said. “That’s the game that’s been going on for a long time.”

Gilmore and Santorum, whose campaigns have failed to generate much enthusiasm among voters both have hovered in the low single-digits or less in Granite State voter surveys, used their time at the microphone to differentiate themselves from their rivals. Santorum pointed out that he’s the only candidate to be featured in Dabiq, a pro-Islamic State magazine.

“If our policy toward ISIS is containment then we are helping ISIS,” Santorum said, using an acronym for the radical Muslim group. “But if we take their land and destroy their state then they have no ability to attract anybody to follow them.”

Gilmore reminded the crowd that he’s the only military veteran in the race.

“I didn’t start with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he said at one point. “I joined the military not for special favors but to serve my country.”