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Trump ignored New Hampshire’s political traditions. They were alive and well for others on a soggy Fourth.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis posed for a photo while walking in the July Fourth parade in Merrimack, N.H.Reba Saldanha/Associated Press

MERRIMACK, N.H. — John and Karen Avard may be the exact type of New Hampshire voters Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other GOP contenders want to court in their race against Donald Trump.

Republicans who say they prioritize conservative values, the Manchester couple came to Merrimack’s Fourth of July parade with no preferred candidate in the GOP field. And for an hour in increasingly heavy rainfall, they watched DeSantis, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and others stride past. Whether it actually will make a difference for voters like the Avards is an open question.

“To me, I look at the issues,” John Avard said Tuesday. “Walking in the rain doesn’t show anything about [their] position on the issues.”


So goes the campaign trail in New Hampshire, where the state’s famously fickle, independent-minded electorate are known for sizing up the field one local event at a time. At least five candidates appeared in Merrimack alone on Tuesday, shaking hands, throwing candy, and introducing themselves to voters largely unfamiliar with them.

In an era where money, outside PACs, and the Trump campaign have chewed away at campaign norms, the small-town events are still a draw, candidates and strategists say, even if the sight of DeSantis crisscrossing Daniel Webster Highway for photos in the rain is more about image than substance.

“It’s still a great differentiator,” said Jim Merrill, a GOP consultant who has helped run campaigns for Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio in New Hampshire. “There’s going to be plenty of super PAC spending, there’s going to be plenty of digital advertising, and debates and things of that nature. But candidates still need to show they are authentic and relatable and look sincere to voters.”

Tuesday’s parade had that in spades. DeSantis and his wife, Casey, walked with one of their young daughters, who spent much of the 1½-mile route riding piggyback on Casey. Burgum toted a candy bucket along the route. Scott greeted parade marchers beforehand, joking with one long-bearded man that he couldn’t pull off that much hair, motioning to his bald head.


“Want some?” the man asked.

One of the biggest parade contingents was for a candidate who was not there: Trump. The former president has often ignored New Hampshire’s well-worn political rules, riding celebrity, and a so-far unflinching conservative base, to successive primary victories and an early lead in polling this time despite multiple criminal indictments.

His competitors, DeSantis included, likely don’t have the same luxury. Many are only beginning to introduce themselves to the state’s voters, and except DeSantis, are polling in single digits in a crowded field. It’s coffee shop talks, parade selfies, and other on-the-ground campaigning that can help build support, the thinking goes.

“People talk about how New Hampshire voters like to meet these candidates and shake their hand. It’s BS. But it’s the game you have to play,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Many New Hampshire voters don’t make up their minds until close to the primary, and despite frequent chances to interact with presidential hopefuls, only about 20 percent take advantage of seeing candidates up close, Smith said. National media coverage also has a larger sway over how people consume their news than the state’s lone television station or local newspapers, he said.


“We’ve had a myth about grassroots campaigning in New Hampshire for a long time. It frankly isn’t there. What’s important is you have the appearance of campaigning,” Smith said.

Trump has never been bound by that playbook. He isn’t marching in a Fourth of July parade and has only rarely engaged in the personal, one-on-one questioning the state’s voters famously demand. While he has occasionally stopped at Manchester’s Red Arrow Diner — a well-known glad-handing spot — his appearances usually involve rallies, not town halls or meet-and-greets.

“I think he’s more of a movement than a person,” Tammy Murphy, a 57-year-old Nashua resident, said as she gathered with other Trump supporters ahead of the parade, which featured a truck toting a cardboard cutout of the former president. “I don’t think he avoids things. He literally doesn’t care.”

Other presidential hopefuls, meanwhile, walked through a drizzle that became a steady rainfall by the end of the route on Tuesday. DeSantis at several points said he was impressed by the turnout for the parade, noting to a supporter midway through the walk that “in Florida, people might have scattered” at that point.

“We’re going to be doing so much more here,” he told reporters afterward.

Some question whether such retail politicking plays to DeSantis’ strengths. In a viral moment last month, the governor snapped at a reporter who asked him why he did not take questions from the audience at an event in Laconia, N.H. “Are you blind?” DeSantis said as he worked his way through the crowd. “People are coming up to me, talking to me [about] whatever they want to talk to me about.”


DeSantis took questions last week at a Town Hall-style event in Hollis, but so far, his ability to mingle with voters has been “markedly bad,” said Tom Rath, a longtime GOP consultant and former state attorney general.

“The problem with governors, they’re surrounded by a phalanx of state troopers and there’s an almost unnatural barrier between him and the voter,” said Rath, who cautioned that he’s been to only a couple of events where DeSantis has appeared. “I haven’t seen him jump out of the cocoon and really engage.”

DeSantis bounced from one side of the road to the other for much of the parade, stopping regularly for photos or to pass a handheld American flag to a family. He chatted with one supporter about a documentary he watched on Netflix about the fastball, marveling at the speeds Nolan Ryan and other pitchers could reach.

Perhaps the only point of tension came near the parade’s end, when 15-year-old Quinn Mitchell said that when he tried to engage with DeSantis, he had his shirt tugged from behind before members of DeSantis’ security team surrounded him on the side of the parade route.

His mother confronted DeSantis, telling him repeatedly, “That’s not OK,” as they walked.

Mitchell, who lives in Walpole, N.H., said he has attended roughly 70 events involving presidential candidates since 2020 to question them, including last week in Hollis when he reportedly asked DeSantis whether he believed Trump had violated constitutional provisions for a peaceful transfer of power. On Tuesday, he said he was trying to engage DeSantis again to see if he had a different answer.


“I’m not going to blame DeSantis,” Mitchell said afterward of the incident on the parade route, chalking it up to an overly aggressive staff. “He said, ‘Come to my next event.’”

Matt Stout can be reached at Follow him @mattpstout.