The top three Republicans battling for second place and a chance to challenge frontrunner Donald Trump were all onstage at the New Hampshire GOP’s First in the Nation (FITN) Summit in Nashua on Friday. Chris Christie, Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley addressed Republicans gathered at the Sheraton, along with Gov. Doug Burgum and Vivek Ramaswamy.
In a sign of how important the summit is to New Hampshire Republican candidates, both Kelly Ayotte and Chuck Morse — running in the gubernatorial primary — appeared as well.
New Hampshire GOP Chair Chris Ager described the mood of Granite State Republicans as “excited and energized.” And he went out of his way to note the diversity of views being heard at the summit.
“We want to hear a lot of different voices, give the entire spectrum of the party a chance to speak,” Ager said.
Nashua native and GOP operative Matthew Bartlett agreed.
“The political circus is in town, and we have a big tent,” Bartlett said. “But having different views on some issues isn’t going to divide the Republicans in this room. Talk to them, and there’s a notion of not just wanting to win the next election, but the notion of needing to win.”
Christie Gets Laughs – Then Boos
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the first Republican presidential candidate to speak. Christie presented a brief 15-minute speech, focused mostly on the Hamas attack on Israel and the need to stand with Israel in the aftermath. More than 1,200 Israelis and 27 Americans were killed in the attack.
“Iran is behind what’s going on in Israel,” Christie said, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin is happy about the conflict because it is a distraction from Russia’s offensive against Ukraine.
“If we don’t stand with Israel, Israel will not exist,” Christie said.
When one attendee pressed Christie on his unwillingness to criticize former President Donald Trump and other Republicans claiming the 2020 election was stolen, Christie replied, “This is the first time I’ve been accused of not being tough enough on Trump,” inspiring laughter.
Laughter later turned into scattered boos from the audience when Christie said there was no evidence of voter fraud in the 2020 election and that Trump’s behavior following it was “beneath his office.”
The second presidential candidate to take the stage Friday was Gov. Doug Burgum.
He is currently polling at just 1.3 percent in the New Hampshire primary, according to 538 polling averages.
“Right now, we have a situation where we’ve got cable TV channels, and we’ve got political insiders, and we’ve got media trying to say that they should narrow the field,” Burgum told the crowd. “I just want to say that it’s not pollsters that pick presidents, it’s not pundits that pick presidents – it’s New Hampshire, and people like you, who pick the president,” he said.
Burgum focused on three primary topics: The economy, energy, and national security.
“These three things are all completely interrelated; they’re completely tied together,” he said. “And I said on day one that Joe Biden and his administration was 180 degrees in the wrong direction on each of these.”
The North Dakota governor said inflation is “higher than ever before” and is “cutting into every one of you, and everyone you know, and every family in America.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has in recent weeks fallen to third place in New Hampshire behind Nikki Haley, took the stage late Friday afternoon.
A day earlier, DeSantis told reports, “I think New Hampshire is so wide open. I think people have not made up their minds at all in this race. I think there is a lot of ground to be trod on here.”
DeSantis’ message on Friday was that as president, he would be able to get the job done that Trump failed to do while in office.
“[Trump] said recently that the reason it didn’t happen was because there was no legal mechanism where he could’ve made Mexico pay for the wall,” DeSantis said.” Now, that’s not what he said in 2016. I was at those rallies; he was saying they’re gonna pay.”
DeSantis said he would impose fees on remittances from foreign nationals sending money back to their countries of origin in order to fund the border wall.
The Florida governor also warned the crowd of the threat posed by the Biden administration’s weak stance toward China.
“China is our first peer competitor since the end of the Cold War,” he said. “They want to pass us economically, they want to pass us militarily – Biden, the way he’s going, they are going to do both.”
“We’re going to make sure that American strength wins the day,” he added. “We’re not going to let [China] take more of our industry; we’re going to establish economic independence from China.”
DeSantis, known for his firm stance against the pandemic-era lockdown and vaccine mandates, said he would “hold the government accountable for its misdeeds.”
“Government must be limited. No unaccountable bureaucracy, no weaponization of federal power, and we’re going to make sure that we hold the government accountable for its misdeeds – starting with COVID-19 lockdown policies, mandates, and restrictions,” he said.
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley gave a wide-ranging speech, covering topics from foreign policy, the border crisis, fentanyl trafficking, veterans, and education.
Haley took a shot at Vice President Kamala Harris when criticizing the Biden administration’s border policies.
“I’ve been to the southern border, and I didn’t pull a Kamala—go and come back,” Haley said.
The 51-year-old also called for “mental competency tests for anyone over 75” who holds office and for term limits.
“The Senate is now like the most privileged nursing home in the country,” Haley said.
On foreign policy and national security, Haley urged the audience to remember the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. “We needed friends on September 12th,” she said. “Stop acting like it’s September 10th”
Haley also said a simple solution to veterans being afforded better healthcare would be to make members of Congress use the VA – adding the move would result in the VA giving “the best health care you’ve ever seen.”
The former UN ambassador pinned the nation’s fentanyl crisis on China and a weak southern border.
“Don’t think for a second China doesn’t know what they’re doing when they send [fentanyl],” she said.
Political outsider Vivek Ramaswamy was the last presidential hopeful to take the stage in Nashua Friday night.
The son of immigrants and a self-made multi-millionaire, Ramaswamy told the crowd the country is at war between a pro-America side and an anti-American side.
“The first step to winning a war is knowing you’re in one in the first place,” he said.
The 38-year-old millennial said it’s time for a new generation to lead the nation toward a revival and that “the dogmas of 1980 are inadequate to address the challenge we face today in the year 2023.”
Ramaswamy walked onto the stage accompanied by a live fife-and-drum corps and told the audience he believes “we live in a 1776 moment today.”
He made calls to “gut that swamp,” referring to the entrenched managerial class of Washington D.C. bureaucrats, and to “stop paying people more money to stay at home than to go to work.”
On education, Ramaswamy advocated for requiring high school students to pass the same civics test that immigrants to the U.S. must pass to gain citizenship after referring to a statistic that teens are far more willing to give up their right to vote than to do away with their TikTok account.
He said it is “laughable, but it’s not funny” that U.S. military contractors outsource their manufacturing to China, adding that as president, he would work toward gaining economic independence from China and bring onshore manufacturing back to the U.S.
“You want to know the best measure of our country’s health, the best measure of American democracy’s health?” Ramaswamy asked the crowd. “It’s not the number of green pieces of paper in our bank account; it’s not the number of ballots we cast every November. Those are important, but they’re not the most important thing. It is the percentage of people who feel free to say what they actually think in public.”
Chuck Morse walked the crowd through his legislative record as former state Senate president: Passing concealed carry, getting a late-term abortion ban on the books, and eliminating the interest and dividends tax. “That didn’t happen by accident,” Morse said. “It happened because we elected effective conservative leadership.”
Kelly Ayotte got plenty of applause when she repeated her campaign mantra that New Hampshire is “one election away from being Massachusetts, and that is something that we never want to be.” She went a step further, saying she “wants to put a border between New Hampshire and Massachusetts” – a statement met with loud applause from the Republican crowd.
And Ayotte reminded the audience, “As much as we care about the presidential [election], let’s not forget about the governor’s race.”
That sentiment was echoed by Granite State Republican strategist Periklis Karoutas, who was happy to see Friday’s event included a panel on the state legislature.
“It was a great opportunity to remind people that when you go to vote [next year], you’re not just voting for president, you’re voting for the state legislature,” Karoutas said. “Some of those values voters are looking at, on taxes and Second Amendment rights, those decisions are made by officeholders up and down the ballot. Not just in Washington.”
Asa Hutchinson, Sen. Tim Scott, and Mike Pence are slated to speak on Saturday.