NASHUA — It was just after 7 a.m. Friday, about two hours before the First-in-the-Nation Republican Leadership Summit began, and June Marshall had arrived.
The 59-year-old Manchester resident roamed the hallways of the Crowne Plaza hotel as vendors stocked tables with buttons that read “Big Government Sucks” and crib sheets on the conservative bona fides of the could-be presidential candidates scheduled to speak.
“I got up at 5:30 — and I never get up that early,” said Marshall, her lapel decorated with red-sequined elephants and a Ted Cruz 2016 button. “I been looking forward to meeting a lot of these people. I’d rather be here than pay my bills.”
Marshall was part of the answer to this question: Who would pay a $75 entry fee to hear two full days of political speeches more than nine months before the primary? It is an apt question in a state where free and frequent access to politicians is something of a birthright.
And by midday Friday, high school and college students, people with a cause, diehard Republicans, party leaders, elected officials, and the politically curious were stepping over each other as they maneuvered through crammed hallways and ballrooms to hear 19 Republican White House hopefuls. The weekend — a fund-raiser for the state Republican party — served as an unofficial kickoff to next year’s GOP primary in New Hampshire.
For 66-year-old Erik Spitzbarth, this weekend’s event makes for more efficient candidate research than traveling around to various town halls and meet-and-greets. This is a one-stop shop, said the Hancock resident.
“It’s a golden opportunity to go to one place and see many of them at the same time,” he said during a break between speeches.
During the course of the weekend, some 600 registrants will fill round tables with white tablecloths and swag from various candidates, including DVDs from Dennis Michael Lynch, stickers from US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, and bags from the Super PAC supporting Dr. Ben Carson.
Speakers, of whom there were many, got about 30 minutes to share their message and take questions. And as they did, attendees scribbled notes in the margins of program books and typed out thoughts on tablets. Videos of stump speeches and photos of candidates were captured via cellphone.
Nicholas Pappas, 20, and his business partner, Anthony Christopher, a childhood friend attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, were ready with their cellphones to shoot short video clips to post to their site, SoCawlege.com, which he called “a conservative BuzzFeed.”
Someone told the junior at the University of Massachusetts about the weekend event, so he and his startup’s cofounder forked over the cash to attend.
“I’m trying to get some interviews, trying to meet some people, network, make contacts,” he said. “Conservatives have to have some entertainment that appeals to young people. Otherwise, we won’t get anywhere with them.”
The eight students attending from New England College all showed up Friday because politics means something to them — and because the university picked up the tab. Some are young Republican activists. Others are Democrats with conservative leanings. A few are independents. All are political science majors.
“There are some people I like, some people I’m not fond of” on the program’s agenda, said sophomore Anthony Boame, standing next to two friends.
The group rattled off a list of people they wanted to hear from this weekend that included three former governors — Jeb Bush, George Pataki, and Bob Ehrlich — and Donald Trump.
New Hampshire newcomer Dani Sellers said she’s met four governors in the few short months she’s lived in a state where voters regularly have one-on-one contact with political candidates.
“In California, that would never happen,” the 46-year-old Nottingham resident said.
Still, the self-proclaimed independent said there are so many people to consider during the 2016 election cycle that she decided to attend the summit because “I thought it would be a great way to learn about the candidates.”
But Sellers opted to be a volunteer during the two-day event rather than pay to get in.
“As a volunteer, you get to be on the inside track usually,” she said.
“Being a paid attendee, you just have to go and sit.”