MANCHESTER, N.H — As soon as former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld walked into his first New Hampshire diner as an official Republican presidential candidate Tuesday, he spread his arms and proclaimed, “I am back.”
Two people clapped in a nearby booth. The rest of the crowd at the Red Arrow Diner appeared oblivious to the tall redhead in a leather jacket adorned with a Weld 2020 button.
Weld, who served as Massachusetts governor from 1991 to 1997, announced Monday that he would become the first — and possibly only — challenger to President Trump in the GOP primary.
His campaign marks the first time since 1992 that a sitting president has faced a primary challenge, but it also tacks on another chapter in Weld’s often-meandering political career. After failed bids for an ambassadorship to Mexico and governor of New York, Weld endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and had a spot on the national Libertarian Party’s ticket in the last presidential election.
Now, along with a campaign camera crew; his wife, Leslie; former New Hampshire Republican Party chair Jennifer Horn; and Bob Durand, who served as Weld’s secretary of environmental affairs, Weld visited three diners in the state to launch his presidential campaign.
A handful of supporters greeted him at each stop, and Weld chatted up other diners about sports, the weather, and tenaciousness of the fisher cat, an animal native to the Granite State.
“People are usually like, ‘What is a fisher cat?’ But [they] don’t realize how ferocious they can be, sort of like me and this campaign,” Weld said.
Along the trail, Weld took questions from voters. He confirmed he would pardon Edward Snowden but said he was unsure about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He said he’s supported gay rights since he served as governor.
Bill Chisholm, a Trump supporter from South Carolina who was visiting his brother in the area, expressed skepticism about the longevity of Weld’s campaign.
“You don’t really believe you will be in for a while. This will be short-lived,” Chisholm said.
“No, I think we will surprise some people,” Weld responded.
Indeed, Weld was often asked about how he would take on Trump. In an exchange with another Republican at the Red Arrow Diner, Weld joked he would probably have to come up with a nickname for Trump — perhaps a reference to Don Corleone, the fictional character from The Godfather?
“I mean, he is going to have a doozy [of a nickname] for me, are you kidding?” Weld said.
In addition to hiring Stuart Stevens, the lead strategist on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and Horn, Weld said two other New Hampshire staffers have accepted offers to join his campaign in May. He also plans to open an office in Boston’s financial district next month.
In an interview inside a Nashua diner, Weld said his first goal for his nascent presidential campaign was to win the New Hampshire primary, but he also plans to raise more than $12 million and run a national campaign.
He’ll focus on all six states in New England, the mid-Atlantic region, and the Pacific Northwest, he said, and he plans to make his first trip to California later in the month.
But when asked whether his goal was to prevent Trump from winning reelection, he replied, “my goal now is to win the New Hampshire primary.” Weld said his model is former senator John McCain of Arizona, who won the New Hampshire primary twice, including in 2000, when the state party favored his opponent, George W. Bush.
“There is no substitute for going over the party apparatus to win over voters,” said Weld, who followed a similar strategy when he won the GOP nomination for Massachusetts governor in 1990.
But the party has changed over the last four decades. The ranks of the New Hampshire Republican Party are decidedly supportive of the president. The new chairman, Steve Stepanek, has disparaged Weld for running as the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee in 2016.
“I am in second place,” Weld joked about the two-person contest. “Kamala Harris would love to be in second place.”