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Rival Republicans need an early victory to knock Donald Trump off his path to the nomination. Is New Hampshire the place to do it?

A supporter got a photo as former president Donald Trump addressed a Republican women's luncheon in Concord, N.H., last month.JOHN TULLY/NYT

They come chasing a political fairy tale.

Once upon a time, this is where Jimmy Carter started to win over a country that didn’t even know his name — where John McCain, carrying his own bags and driving his “Straight Talk Express,” turned his fortunes to earn the GOP nomination in 2008. In New Hampshire, the story goes, if they shake enough hands and kiss enough babies, humble themselves at enough town halls and eat at enough diners, even long shots can become president.

That’s the hope, at least, for a long list of Republican presidential contenders not named Donald Trump. For the second- and third-tier candidates hoping to knock the former president off his glide path to the GOP nomination, an early-state victory is essential, and New Hampshire may be the best chance they’ll get. This small and fiercely independent state, where the voters are more accessible and the playing field more even, has a history of bucking expectations and propelling underdogs to the White House.

But with the persistent dominance of Trump — solidified, rather than shaken, by his recent indictments — and the increasing sway of national media coverage over in-person campaign stops, it’s unclear whether such a come-from-behind victory is still possible, even in this bastion of retail politics.


Even if it is, it remains to be seen whether any of Trump’s challengers can pull it off.

“New Hampshire remains the last best hope for any of these candidates,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chair of the state GOP and an establishment Republican who opposes Trump. The legend of New Hampshire as a perfect opportunity for the glad-handing upstart “has always been a myth to a certain extent, and it’s an even bigger myth today,” Cullen said. “This primary is happening on cable news.”

“But it is still the case that New Hampshire gives an open field and an even chance to underfunded candidates,” Cullen added. “Those things don’t happen in other places.”


Trump decisively won the first-in-the-nation primary in 2016, a victory that powered his path to the nomination, and polls still show him as the clear front-runner in New Hampshire.

Still, rival Republican candidates are flocking to the state, hoping to achieve their own miracles. Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador, has already held more than 30 events in New Hampshire, her campaign said, with a multi-day swing scheduled for this week. And Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and erstwhile Trump ally who has built his campaign around attacking the former president, is betting hard on the state, even though he finished sixth here in 2016.

The campaign is “concentrating on New Hampshire right now. We’re going to make a big effort there,” as well as in South Carolina, Christie said in a recent radio interview. The former governor launched his campaign in New Hampshire last month.

And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has struggled in the early days of the race despite widespread expectations that he’s Trump’s top rival, has made several trips to the state, most recently for the Fourth of July. He was one of several GOP contenders grinning through a soggy parade this week, doffing their hats to the state’s tradition of retail politics. Trump, meanwhile, was absent from the campaign trail; he has so far managed to win support in New Hampshire even while rebuffing its cherished political playbook.


“You can see all the attention they’ve been showing the state,” New Hampshire GOP chairman Chris Ager said in Hollis last week, as DeSantis fans milled around a low-ceilinged banquet hall waiting for the governor to speak. “New Hampshire is critical because you can do retail, and word of mouth spreads. . . . Here, everyone gets a fair shot.”

Trump has consistently led in national and early-state polls, with DeSantis a distant second, and a growing roster of other hopefuls trailing him. That means candidates hoping to dislodge the former president “have to go all in,” said Dante Scala, a politics professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“You have to knock off Trump early, and then you have to keep him off,” Scala said. “You can’t let him get up off the mat.”

DeSantis made an attempt at that last week, during an appearance in Hollis that took place just 40 miles and a couple hours from a Trump campaign speech in Concord. Taking care to differentiate himself from Trump without explicitly knocking his rival, DeSantis spent nearly an hour engaging directly with voters in a town hall-style event. That seemed to be a course correction after he drew criticism for not taking questions at an earlier appearance in New Hampshire.

After that stop in a small town on the border with Massachusetts, in an event space beyond the reaches of cell service, a half-dozen Republican voters praised DeSantis as a more polished alternative to Trump. But while they were enthusiastic about DeSantis’ message, many were still undecided, even after 90 minutes with him.


Some strategists argue DeSantis is too conservative for New Hampshire — that the candidate who looks best positioned to dislodge Trump nationally may not be a good match for the state that seems to offer the best chance to dislodge him.

“The problem with the equation right now is, the one guy with the financial ability to stay in the fight against Trump for the whole distance is Ron DeSantis, and unfortunately he is exactly anathema to the kind of retail politics that New Hampshire is justly famous for,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican who founded the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.

But allies insist DeSantis is competitive everywhere.

“We think it’s important to contest everywhere because the governor’s message, he reaches across the spectrum better than anybody else,” said Ken Cuccinelli, founder of the Never Back Down super PAC that is supporting DeSantis. “There isn’t a limit to that from our perspective.”

To be sure, other early states offer significant tests — and opportunities — for the GOP field. Iowa, whose Republican electorate skews more conservative and evangelical, is seen as a friendlier forum for DeSantis, whose positions on abortion and other social issues place him to the right of many New Hampshire Republicans. And South Carolina will be an important proving ground for Haley, a former governor there, and Tim Scott, who represents the state in the US Senate. A decisive win in Iowa could help one of Trump’s rivals consolidate support in New Hampshire and the states that follow, strategists said.


Still, “New Hampshire is insanely important this time around,” said Jon McHenry, a national GOP pollster who grew up in the state. “There’s an opportunity to do as close to one-on-one as you’re going to be able to do. By the time you get to South Carolina, it’s gonna be all television.”

With President Biden as the Democrats’ presumptive nominee — and with the party turning away from New Hampshire in favor of early contests in a more racially diverse array of states — the energy and media attention have been on the GOP side. That may make independent voters in New Hampshire more likely to vote in the Republican race — another important constituency for presidential hopefuls to capture.

That’s one of many factors that make it hard to predict which way New Hampshire may swing. With months to go, analysts said, there is plenty of room for the unexpected.

And at least for 71-year-old Dave Parry, the primary contest is far from over.

Parry is “not sure yet” who will earn his support, he said after a 90-minute DeSantis town hall last week. “I want the most conservative person who will win.”

For Parry — a retiree who said he fled Connecticut’s Democratic politics two years ago and now lives in Hollis — the spectacle is just getting started.

“It’s so fun to be in New Hampshire,” he said, “where it actually makes a difference.”

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Emma Platoff can be reached at Follow her @emmaplatoff.