In a high school cafeteria in Merrimack, NH, on Tuesday, where patriotic music blared from speakers and lunch tables were festooned with Stars-and-Stripes tablecloths, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum mingled with families digging in eggs, sausage and pancakes at the Fourth of July breakfast hosted by the local Rotary Club.
Nelson Disco, 88, one of the potential voters in the small crowd, had a few questions for him. What was he running for? And with what party?
“You have some competition,” exclaimed Mr. Disco, as the North Dakota governor told him he was seeking the Republican nomination for president.
But Mr. Burgum wasn’t discouraged: « Feeling great » about the race, he said.
It was the last July 4th before the first Republican primary in New Hampshire, set for February, and the famous directing committees in Iowa: plenty of time to catch up, but it was clear to the darkest of dark horses that Tuesday they were burning the leather of the shoes that there was a lot of ground to make up.
Even some better known competitors were in New Hampshire. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who ranks second in Republican primary polls to former President Donald J. Trump, attended two parades, including one that also drew Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is still far behind the herd. The weather was far from pleasant: Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Scott and others walking during the afternoon parade in Merrimack, NH, were soaked when a thunderstorm struck.
Campaigning for Independence Day is a tradition in New Hampshire and Iowa, as old as the caucuses and primaries in those states. It would be more than a century of first-place finishers and also rushes to Granite State parades and picnics and pancake breakfasts. This year, however, there was a twist: Forbidding front-runner Mr. Trump skipped ambushes, staying home with his family and shooting lewd posts on social media.
Yet the minions of his countryside and his unwieldy shadow still loomed heavily over his competition.
In Urbandale, Iowa, where Trump’s former vice president and current contender, Mike Pence, was marching in the parade, spectators chanted — « Trump, Trump, Trump » — as he passed.
Melody Krejci, 60, of Urbandale, said: “My whole family are Trump supporters, even our grandchildren. They also wear Trump suits and Trump hats. There are also Trump posters in their rooms, she said.
He added, « I think Pence is a coward, » alluding to the mistaken belief, still held by Trump, that his vice president could have withheld enough electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021, to postpone the 2020 election until he says, and possibly overturn the victory of Joseph R. Biden Jr..
Back in the old days—before super PACs flooded the airwaves, social media brought messages from politicians straight to voters’ smartphones, and partisans were glued to their favorite cable newscasts—showing up on July 4th really mattered.
« Retail has always been mostly theater, but now it’s all about performing for the cameras, not meeting regular people and listening to their concerns, » said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New York State Republican Committee. Hampshire.
This year, Trump’s rivals hoped it still mattered. In Merrimack, NH, volunteers and well-wishers supporting Mr. DeSantis waited to walk their candidate in the July 4th parade, standing next to a dance troupe in hot pink shirts, a wooden wagon full of Bektash Shrine members Clowns and a yellow school bus decorated as the Boston Tea Party boat.
But it was another Republican presidential hopeful, Mr. Scott, who first caused a stir, appearing on the parade route followed by a passel of photographers and cameras.
« Hopefully some of those constituents will become our constituents, » Mr. Scott told reporters when asked his thoughts on the people in DeSantis and Trump gear who were arriving to shake his hand. « But ultimately, we thank God that we have engaged people in the country, committed to the concept that conservative values always work. »
Outside a pancake breakfast in Merrimack, NH, former Texas Rep. Will Hurd and his wife, Lynlie Wallace, mingled with runners at a road race.
Mr. Hurd, a moderate Republican and a fierce critic of Mr. Trump who is trying to squeeze his fledgling presidential campaign out of the starting gate, said he just finished touring the northern border near Vermont, which he said he faced problems similar to those on the southern border of his home state: scarce resources and increasing drug trafficking. Those were the kinds of problems he wanted to deal with, he said. But for now, he added, he was just happy to just be out shaking hands.
« Today is about meeting people, right? » said Mr. Hurd. « Not everyone scrolls doom on social media or consumes cable news. »
And Trump? « I’m sure people are thankful he didn’t come out, » he said. « He Comes with a lot of baggage. »
If there were any glimmers of hope for the dark horses, it came from voters’ recognition of that baggage, which now includes felony charges in New York linked to paying undisclosed money to a porn star and federal misdemeanor charges in Miami that they accuse him of misusing highly classified documents and hindering government efforts to recover them.
In Iowa, Jim Miller, 73, sat along the parade route in Urbandale with his wife and other family members. He said he voted for Trump twice but was disappointed with his attitude. He wants a candidate who values being American over being Republican or Democrat.
Asked to compare Mr Pence to Mr Trump, Mr Miller said: “Not even close. I would take Pence any day.
As for Mr. Burgum, he expressed an understanding of how steep his climb would be just to enter contention for his party’s presidential nomination. The name recognition challenge is « familiar, » he said. But he also noted that people 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 hasn’t been seriously challenged at North Dakota since.
Not everyone was unaware of his campaign. One volunteer, Maureen Tracey, 55, rushed from the back of the room to ask for a selfie with him. She said she liked Mr. Burgum because she, like Mr. Trump, looked « unlike a politician ». But unlike Mr. Trump, she added, Mr. Burgum seemed to be someone she could trust.
Mr. Trump « has hurt too many people, and when you hurt that many people, there’s no trust, » Ms. Tracey said.
Mr. Burgum, pitting himself against the highest-profile Republican running, Mr. Trump, without mentioning him, said he decided to run because the country needed a leader who would work for every American, regardless of political affiliation.
“Republicans, Independents, Democrats – they all drive on US roads, they all go to US schools, they all get healthcare in America,” he said. « Today is the day to really reflect on that. »
Ann Hinga Klein contributed reporting from Urbandale, Iowa.