MANCHESTER, N.H. — Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, was making the soft sell.
He lavished praise on a colleague, Kelly Ayotte, and her home, New Hampshire. He recounted his visits to the state in 2012. And, to a rapt crowd, he channeled another senator with a winning Granite State record.
“A lot of senators look in the mirror and see a future president, which is why you’re so bombarded with people up here,” he explained to knowing chuckles. “And John McCain always says, the only thing that cures that is embalming fluid.”
The group of about 50 people at a June fund-raiser loved it. But when Thune stepped outside, passersby didn’t give him a second glance.
He is no Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who swept into New Hampshire last month and campaigned for a GOP gubernatorial hopeful, surrounded by news media. He’s no Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who wowed Granite State Republican activists speaking about the American dream in May. And he’s no Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who made the rounds at a “Freedom Summit” here in April, rallying the base.
Thune is instead part of a less familiar cluster of might-be 2016 hopefuls making the trek to a state far from their constituents, in what Republican insiders and activists say is the most wide-open GOP field in memory for the nation’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
A year and a half before the 2012 and 2008 Granite State primaries, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and McCain, the Arizona senator, were ascendant as they readied second White House runs, with networks of supporters poised to work on their behalf. This time, there is no next candidate in line and no favorite, according to interviews with more than a dozen New Hampshire Republican operatives, activists, and current and former elected officials.
“There’s no heir apparent, so it’s completely open and activists are looking for somebody,” said Republican Donna Sytek, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives.
As Democrats await a decision from their leading contender, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, Republicans in New Hampshire said the fashion in which the 2016 GOP field is shaping up leaves space for a wide variety of candidates to get a hearing — and maybe something more.
Anybody who meets a basic threshold of viability has “got a shot this time,” said Jamie Burnett, a New Hampshire consultant, who worked for Romney’s campaign during his 2008 presidential bid.
Still, there’s a general consensus among plugged-in Republicans that in New Hampshire there is already a top tier of might-be White House hopefuls who have made recent treks to the state: Christie, Paul, Rubio, and perhaps Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. They say at least two others — former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin — would join that club, if they began showing up. And a slew of other contenders, from Governor Rick Perry to Senator Ted Cruz, both of Texas, are in the mix.
But, the Republicans said, there is also room for other, less-known GOP elected officials to break through, such as Thune, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, and Representative Peter T. King of New York.
Thune, who campaigned in New Hampshire for Romney in 2012 and helped raise money for the state GOP at a 2013 event in Washington, headlined the June political action committee fund-raiser in Manchester. He was at ease talking about Senate gridlock and the future of the GOP, and he worked the room with a smile.
In an interview, Thune said he was focused on helping the GOP take control of the Senate, but, like many out-of-town politicos who don’t come to Manchester for the cuisine, didn’t rule out a 2016 bid.
Portman, who recently acknowledged he was open to a White House run, is seen favorably by a wide swath of key New Hampshire Republican powerbrokers and has visited the Granite State numerous times in 2013 and 2014. His daughter, Sally, is a student at Dartmouth College, and he has been quietly helping local GOP causes and holding meetings with party leaders. Sytek, the former House speaker, mentioned she received a Christmas card from the senator.
A former US trade representative and White House budget director, Portman is seen by insiders as having substantial policy chops and an advantageous political profile.
Former state attorney general Thomas D. Rath, a longtime presence in Granite State GOP politics, said if Portman got in, he would be a “formidable candidate” and comes from the wing of the party that tends to nominate candidates: “the center-right.”
Longtime GOP consultant David Carney agreed that Portman would be a powerful competitor were he to run and put the necessary resources together. But he cautioned the senator is essentially unknown among state GOP voters and “doesn’t have the sizzle and the pizazz and the showmanship that other candidates bring to the table.”
Another potential 2016 candidate, one with more showmanship and an arguably narrower path to the White House, is King. The voluble, homeland security-focused congressman from Long Island said he has made about a half-dozen trips to the state in the last year, which included a recent garden party at the home of New Hampshire’s Republican national committeewoman.
Probably best known to the American people as the bearer of grim terrorism-related tidings (“I can’t go into all the details, but overseas airport security is a real concern ...,” he recently said on national TV), King said he’s accepting invitations to the Granite State and is seeing what’s out there.
In a telephone interview, he explained he was keen on pushing back against policies espoused by officials such as Paul, the Kentucky senator, who has advocated a less interventionist approach to American foreign affairs than his more hawkish colleagues.
“We can’t become isolationists like Rand Paul wants us to be,” he said. (Paul contends he’s a “realist.”)
While noting he had received a positive reception during his travels north, King dryly acknowledged that his might-be candidacy had not yet ripened.
“The most successful part,” King said, “is I’m not peaking too soon.”
Republicans expect activity in New Hampshire from a varied batch of their party’s potential White House candidates to increase in coming months, as outside pols campaign for state and local candidates and glad hand from Concord to Keene.
“The tirekickers in our party will have sore feet before they make a firm commitment,” said Carney, the consultant.
And while primary voters would be open to candidates from across the party spectrum, he said the key characteristic New Hampshire Republicans would be looking for is someone who could win in November 2016.
“Ultimately,” he explained, “that will be the criteria that people will use: Who is the person who best represents my values who can crush Hillary.”