MANCHESTER, N.H. — Fourteen Republican White House hopefuls are scheduled to participate in the Voters First Forum Monday at 7 p.m., answering questions one-on-one with a host during a televised program at Saint Anselm College.
The event marks the first meeting of the candidates this week, followed by the official inaugural GOP debate Thursday in Cleveland. The New Hampshire forum is a response to that debate’s limit of 10 candidates — an effort by Granite State media to refocus the presidential race on the early nominating states instead of an increasingly nationalized race.
So far, it’s working: Earlier Monday, candidates held court around the Manchester, showering attention on first-in-the-nation primary voters. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin greeted diners at Theo’s Pizza Restaurant. For 45 minutes, he went table to table, shaking hands and getting his picture taken.
When one diner remarked on the large number of candidates in the state, Walker responded, “I know. It is like a candidate bonanza.”
Earlier in the day, former governor Rick Perry of Texas held a business roundtable in Salem, while Governor John Kasich of Ohio visited a law firm. Later in the afternoon, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was scheduled to visit the Puritan Backroom, while former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania hosted a town hall meeting on education.
On Saturday, Senator Lindsey Graham traveled around New Hampshire with the state’s two-time primary winner and his friend, US Senator John McCain of Arizona.
For some candidates, Monday marked their best opportunity to make an impression with Republican voters. Fox News, the sponsor of Thursday’s debate, has limited participation to the top 10 candidates according to five recent and reputable national polls.
“Monday’s forum is about substance and making a statement,” Graham said. “This nationalization of the race is going to eventually kill the early presidential primary states, and that is why I think attending this event is really make a statement that the traditional process matters.”
From the start of the presidential race, national Republicans wanted to avoid having so many meetings of the candidates. After two presidential primary cycles with 20 or more debates, the Republican National Committee tried to bring order to the debate process. It sanctioned nine debates – approximately one per month — from now through March 2016.
But the GOP’s massive presidential field — 17 candidates — means each person would have only a few minutes to talk during an hour-long debate. Fox News has not said yet which polls it will use to select its 10 slots, only that the participants will be announced on Tuesday evening.
Citing the networks’ exclusive criteria, top Republicans in the early presidential nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina protested. Since 1980, these three states have kicked off the process of picking the president, usually by winnowing the field down to two or three potential nominees for each party.
Republicans argued Fox News, by using national polling to decide who makes the cut, is undercutting the early states which traditionally help pick the nominees. Instead, they argued it forces to candidates to run a national primary on television — like Fox News — to make sure they are well known enough to make the debate stage.
In response, the New Hampshire Union Leader, the only statewide newspaper, announced its own forum for candidates. Fox News responded by allowing the remaining candidates who did not make the cut for the evening debate to participate in a Thursday forum aired live on the network hours before the big show.
The Union Leader then scheduled its Voters First Forum on Monday — three days before Fox News’s marquee television event.
But Fox News has another advantage: Businessman Donald Trump, the front-runner in recent polls, has announced he will not appear on Monday evening’s forum, but he will be on stage at Thursday’s debate.
A no-Trump forum Monday night is good news for lesser-known candidates who have struggled for any coverage, according to Republican strategist Dave Carney, who ran Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“The top-tier guys, maybe not so much,” Carney said.
But the challenge at the New Hampshire forum or the Fox News debate could be the same for these candidates.
“With 14 candidates in New Hampshire this is not a debate, it is a spelling bee,” said Dan Schnur, of the University of Southern California’s Unruh Institute of Politics. “It is going to be very difficult for one candidate to break out. But without Trump in the first one, the window of opportunity is greater.”
Watch live video of the event: