NEW HAMPSHIRE– Presidential candidates are seizing a last chance to woo undecided New Hampshire voters on the eve of a contest that could redraw the dimensions of the increasingly fractious White House race.
Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is frantically trying to bounce back from a rocky debate performance and billionaire businessman Donald Trump is trying to turn a large lead in the polls into his first victory after coming in second at the Iowa caucuses.
Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton’s caustic attack on supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who seems headed for an easy victory on Tuesday, is reverberating through the Democratic race.
The latest CNN Poll of Polls of New Hampshire released Monday showed Trump and Sanders well ahead going into the first-in-the-nation primary.
Sanders led Clinton 54% to 40%, down slightly from an 18 percentage point lead in the previous Poll of Polls. The former secretary of state has trailed in every public poll since November in a state in which her family’s political brand has traditionally been strong but where Sanders’ liberal politics and regional appeal give him a built-in advantage.
Among the Republicans, Trump headed the field with 31%, topping Rubio at 15% with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won in Iowa, at 13%. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is at 11% and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 10%. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is down to 5%. All of the surveys included in the polling average were conducted before Saturday night’s debate, so they don’t reflect any impact from Rubio’s perceived flub.
There are good reasons for the candidates, who collectively have at least 30 events in New Hampshire on Monday, to campaign right up to the finish line.
In the latest CNN/WMUR tracking poll, for example, 30% of likely Republican voters hadn’t made up their minds, nor had 16% of likely Democratic voters.
The two biggest questions heading into Tuesday are whether Rubio’s stumble under Christie’s ferocious fire at Saturday’s GOP debate will trigger a late slump in his support and whether Trump’s wide lead will translate into strong voter turnout.
Christie is crowing that his assault, which led a rattled Rubio to repeat the same line four times while playing into an impression that he is over-rehearsed, had changed the entire race and could stave off a predicted winnowing down of establishment candidates.
He also intensified his claims Monday that Rubio was not ready to lead.
“When the lights get that bright, you either shine or you melt, and we can’t afford to have a president who melts,” he said at a campaign event in Hudson, New Hampshire.
Bush also drilled down on the idea that Rubio is not yet ready to be president on CNN’s “New Day” on Monday: “He’s a gifted speaker, he’s a gifted person, but he has nothing in his background to suggest that he could make a tough decision.”
Christie, Bush and Kasich are hoping that Rubio’s rough night halts momentum he built up coming third in Iowa. A strong second place in the Granite State would enhance Rubio’s case that he is best-positioned to consolidate opposition to Trump and Cruz.
Rubio is trying to repair the damage from Saturday’s stumble, in which he repeatedly took refuge in what seemed a scripted attack on President Barack Obama when he was being challenged on his own record by Christie. The exchange played into the New Jersey Governor’s argument that his opponent is a slave to talking points.
Rubio has tried to turn the episode, which is still sending shockwaves through the campaign two days later, into an attack on journalists he claimed were desperate to halt his momentum and keen to defend the President — and defiantly rolled out exactly the same line he deployed in the debate.
“I don’t care how much it outrages the media, I’m going to keep saying it: Barack Obama is trying to change the United States of America,” Rubio wrote in a fundraising appeal to supporters.
Trump, for his part, hinted Sunday that he understands how crucial New Hampshire is to his campaign.
“I could say to you if I came in second and third I’d be thrilled, okay? I know all about expectations,” Trump told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday. “If I came in second I wouldn’t be happy, okay?”
The Democratic race between Clinton and Sanders is also getting increasingly nasty with a clash over the former New York senator’s ties to Wall Street and her campaign’s attacks on his foreign policy.
On Sunday, Bill Clinton slammed the Vermont senator’s supporters who he said subjected opponents to “vicious trolling and attacks that are literally too profane often — not to mention sexist — to repeat.”
“The online campaign is, ‘Anybody who doesn’t agree with me is a tool of the establishment,'” Clinton argued.
Michael Briggs, spokesman for the Sanders campaign, called the comments “disappointing” in a statement to CNN.
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