Just hours before state Sen. Chuck Morse was set to step in front of the WMUR studio cameras for the only statewide televised debate of the GOP U.S. Senate primary, the most popular New Hampshire Republican stepped up to give Morse his endorsement.

“Leadership is about getting stuff done and a record of success, and I couldn’t be more proud to endorse a partner I’ve had at the State House… every step of the way,” Gov. Chris Sununu said in a hastily-called press conference on the grounds of Bridges House in Concord. “Chuck Morse is the candidate who can beat Senator Hassan this November and the candidate Senator Hassan is the most afraid to face.”

Morse, accompanied by his wife Susan and daughter Emma, was beaming. “I couldn’t be more honored,” Morse said.

Just an hour earlier, Morse was in Manchester at an event billed as an “Endorsement Announcement” that had the Granite State GOP rumor mill buzzing. The announcement turned out to be an endorsement from the 60 Plus Association on behalf of older voters. While seniors play an important role in GOP primary elections, it appears the event was at least partially designed to help keep the endorsement appearance with Sununu a secret.

“Nice headfake,” one veteran GOP Republican observed after the Sununu endorsement news hit.

Sen. Chuck Morse received the endorsement of the 60 Plus Association and its president Saul Anuzis

While it may have been quality political theater, will it make any impact? A recent UNH poll found just 21 percent of undecided voters say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate supported by Sununu, while a majority of GOP voters say it wouldn’t help.

At one point, Sununu appeared to agree. He’s said repeatedly that “endorsements don’t really matter” — usually while answer a question about his decision to endorse in the NH-02 Republican primary and not the other federal races. Asked by NHJournal about his previous dismissal of the value of endorsements, Sununu set the bar low.

“If my endorsement drives one vote — or if it drives 10,000 votes —  to help make sure that we defeat Senator Hassan in November, then I’m going to get behind it one hundred percent. Talk is cheap. If you believe something strongly, leadership means you’ve got to get out there and support it,” Sununu said.

That comment didn’t sit well with Republicans who fear a Bolduc victory in the primary will hurt the rest of the ticket, cutting off financial support from the national GOP. They’re also unhappy Sununu didn’t show leadership by helping the party rally around a strong candidate when he chose not to run for the seat.

“Did he really say ‘talk is cheap?’” one frustrated Granite State Republican activist asked. “It’s hard to get much cheaper than waiting until the weekend before the election to make an endorsement.”

Sununu also repeated his concerns about Bolduc as a general election candidate, though he said he still believes the general can defeat Hassan.

“Anyone who spends $25 million like Senator Hassan and has seen her approval numbers not move an absolute inch tells me one thing: she’s defined. The state of New Hampshire is frustrated with her lack of leadership. The state of New Hampshire is frustrated with the fact that she’s been gone for five years and just kind of shows up in year six to run for office,” Sununu said.

“So I have full confidence that any Republican is going to win, but there’s no doubt Chuck Moore has the best chance, not just to win, but win resoundingly. We want to have coattails. We want to make sure we bring the congressional candidates over the line with Chuck and myself. We want to make sure we bring the house and the Senate over the line with Chuck and myself.”

Asked about Sununu’s endorsement of Morse, Bolduc spokesperson Jimmy Thompson said, “This race is a contest between the career politicians on both sides of the aisle,  and outsiders offering a fresh perspective. There is a reason that General Bolduc’s message is resonating. He is campaigning the New Hampshire way and has completed 50 town hall meetings. There are forces at play that transcend any endorsement or attack ads: it’s about which candidate promises to reverse course from the failed status quo.”

GOP strategist Patrick Griffin says Democrats are worried about Morse and not Bolduc.

“The party either gets its act together before they nominate an unelectable candidate or after,” Griffin said. “Bolduc’s floor is his ceiling. He simply can not increase his base support in a general election. That means the weakest, most ineffective senator in America gets re-elected. That’s a lousy outcome for New Hampshire.

“The governor’s endorsement will help frame the primary race and the GOP nominee as the key to winning the general election.”

Ironically, Morse nearly missed his chance to put Sununu’s endorsement to good use. He made it to the last two minutes of Thursday night’s WMUR TV debate without ever mentioning it.

For more on the U.S. Senate GOP primary debate, listen to the NHJournal podcast here.