NASHUA — In the history of the New Hampshire presidential primary, there have never been so many potential Republican presidential candidates — 21 — much less a campaign in which nearly all of them showed up on the same weekend.
The result? One after another Friday, the Republicans tried to differentiate themselves as they moved throughout the state for the unofficial kickoff to the presidential primary.
Exhibit A was former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who broke with many conservatives on the subject of climate change. ''We need to work with the rest of the world to find a way to reduce carbon emissions,'' Bush said in answer to a question at Saint Anselm College in Manchester on Friday.
The big draw was the inaugural First-in-the-Nation Republican Leadership Summit in Nashua, which drew a parade of GOP candidates. They delivered 30-minute pitches to activists and wove in and out of a packed ballroom at the Crowne Plaza hotel.
On Friday, nine potential candidates addressed the crowd, including Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Texas governor Rick Perry, and US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. On Saturday, more are slated to speak, including US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, businessman Donald Trump, US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Christie, on his eighth of nine publicized events in New Hampshire this week, used his stage time mostly to take questions in a format resembling a town hall meeting. The Republican sought to cast himself as the truth-teller in the field, citing the specific changes to federal entitlements that he proposed at Saint Anselm College earlier in the week.
"I didn't run for governor of New Jersey to be elected prom king," Christie said. "I'm not looking to be the most popular guy in the world. I'm looking to be the most respected one. And the way you do that is to put forward real ideas."
For the most part, the way these candidates showcased themselves differed in style, but not much in substance. Former New York governor George Pataki spent his entire time answering questions he had solicited online during the week. Perry underscored his points by mentioning specific people in the audience.
Recent polls of likely New Hampshire Republican voters show the race may be the most wide-open in a generation. Walker, Paul, Christie, and Bush all score in the low double-digits of support.
"There are about 55 people running for president from what I can tell," Bush joked with the crowd Friday "This is going to be an economic boom for New Hampshire."
Earlier in the day, at a Politics & Eggs breakfast in Manchester, Bush spoke of bipartisanship; split with many conservatives when he said ''the climate is changing"; and called for a pathway to legal status for immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
After losing the last two presidential elections, the Republicans gave the Nashua audience a preview of what they will discuss next year on the campaign trail.
The larger the field of candidates, the more power New Hampshire voters have in winnowing the field to the three or four candidates who will continue on to others states. New Hampshire Republicans, like Valery Mitchell, of Concord, attended the conference trying to figure out whom they can eliminate from their list.
"I am looking for someone who can inspire," said Mitchell. "I am not just looking for a boring manager."
This wasn't a political convention, where candidates often demonstrate organizational support and momentum by overwhelming the room with signs and shouting. Activists applauded politely.
But outside the ballroom, bumper stickers, booths, and swag lined the tables. Guests snapped pictures on a green screen with superimposed natural landscapes of the Granite State.
"This event is unprecedented," said Steve Duprey, a Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire. "There are so many presidential candidates because this time it is an open seat, and there is no heir apparent.''
The summit matters because the crowd comprises the state's GOP gatekeepers. Before the primary takes place early next February, they will decide who will speak at county fund-raising dinners and host house parties with their neighbors, all key steps toward success in the primary early next year.
The real opportunity, however, could be for lesser-known candidates such as former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich, and conservative filmmaker Dennis Michael Lynch.
Liz Christoffersen, a Republican operative from Hollis, was also shopping for a candidate to back. So was state Senator Sam Cataldo, of Farmington. Both have their eye on a particular item on the résumé: governor.
"For my mind, governors know how to do the job better than senators," Cataldo said.
Perry, who won three terms as governor in Texas, extended his antiestablishment message to include major financial institutions on Wall Street.
"The conservative movement must be the agent of reform," he said. "There is something wrong when the Dow has record highs, but businesses on Main Street cannot get a loan."
Rubio, given a prime dinner speaking slot, stressed his family's humble roots as Cuban immigrants, who were "never rich and they were never famous," but, a few decades removed from poverty, they owned a home and retired.
"That happens to be my story, but that is actually our story. It is what defines us as a nation and as a people. It is the basis of what separates us from the rest of the world. Today it is in doubt,'' Rubio said.
The event – a $75-a-ticket fund-raiser for the party – is a show of force for the New Hampshire primary itself. This is the first presidential primary cycle in recent memory when state's first-in-the-nation role does not appear to be challenged by other states.
The only potential candidates who skipped the event were former US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and retired Maryland physician Ben Carson.
"I think New Hampshire is extremely powerful in the nomination process because it is going to be place where a [large field of] candidates gets whittled down and that process begins at an event like this one," said Elaine Kamarck, a Harvard Kennedy School lecturer.