LACONIA, N.H. — As Senator Marco Rubio has climbed the polls, the Floridian lacks one element that has proved to be pivotal for previous winners of New Hampshire’s presidential primary: a robust ground game that can generate enthusiasm and support when voters go to the polls.
On Tuesday, Rubio and a super PAC supporting his candidacy started an onslaught of 1,900 television advertisements — approximately $2.8 million worth — on the state’s top station. But underneath the buzz, GOP activists in New Hampshire are grumbling that Rubio has fewer staff members and endorsements than most of his main rivals and has made fewer campaign appearances in the state, where voters are accustomed to face-to-face contact with presidential contenders.
“For much of this year, Rubio just hasn’t been here,” said Belknap County Republican County chairman Alan Glassman, who is not backing a candidate.
Ten GOP candidates have spent more days in New Hampshire this year than Rubio so far, according to a tally from WMUR-TV. Among the top tier of Republican candidates, only retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has spent less time in the Granite State. In what has become an unusual campaign, Rubio, businessman Donald Trump, and Carson have not invested as much in a ground operation as earlier leading presidential candidates.
Rubio’s campaign insisted it has a significant presence throughout the state and said he will increase his appearances. After two public events on Monday, he returns to New Hampshire Friday and again next week.
“We are running an aggressive grass-roots campaign in New Hampshire and will continue to do so until the polls close on February 9th,” said Jim Merrill, Rubio’s New Hampshire point man who oversaw the Mitt Romney campaigns in the state in 2008 and 2012. “Every day, our team is working hard to meet voters on their doorsteps, by phone, through social media, and at events, to earn every vote. ”
On Monday, at a midday town hall meeting in the Lakes Region, Rubio took the stage 65 minutes late. He apologized for his tardiness, blaming “traffic in Miami,” and promised to speak for only a few seconds before taking questions.
Instead, Rubio delivered a 22-minute stump speech, took questions for 11 minutes, and shook hands for 10 minutes before rushing to a live television interview with Fox News Channel. Rubio spoke to the camera in front of a campaign logo, masking the rustic wood panels of a building that had hosted decades of presidential candidates practicing the art of retail politics.
James Gaisser, a 55-year-old carpenter from Sandwich who plans to vote in the GOP primary, came to Monday’s event on the way to a doctor’s appointment in Gilford, but he left after waiting an hour for Rubio.
“He is not helping himself with barely showing up and then being late when he does,” Gaisser said. “In New Hampshire, we see this as a unique opportunity for us to see him, but also for him to see us, and introducing himself. He looks good on television, but if he keeps this up he is blowing it.”
In a GOP primary field filled with 14 major candidates, Rubio has ascended to the top tier, taking second place in the most recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of New Hampshire Republican voters. Only Trump leads Rubio, 22 percent to 11 percent, according to the poll, which was taken in mid-November.
Rubio’s campaign said its voter-outreach program is top-notch. A campaign aide said volunteers knocked on 4,000 doors in the state last weekend and supporters are present at most local Republican gatherings, plus events such as the holiday parade in Salem.
A review by the Globe found that Rubio’s staff remains small compared to other top campaigns. He has seven paid aides in New Hampshire — a size more in line with what struggling candidates have.
Other campaigns have double that number: Trump has 15 paid aides in the state, while Carson has 10. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush recently revealed he had increased the state staff to 20 people.
Bush is also opening four offices in the state for a total of five; Rubio has one.
In addition to the staff gap, Rubio has not collected many high-profile endorsements. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s campaign boasts they have secured 100 endorsements, and Trump is drawing crowds of thousands also willing to volunteer for him. In New Hampshire, Rubio’s campaign boasts notably fewer, though he picked up one endorsement this week from Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield.
Rubio’s relatively small staff means the campaign relies on other groups to host events and build an audience — another key component in generating excitement for a campaign. Most of his recent visits include a single town hall meeting and another event, such as a business tour or a speech to the local Chamber of Commerce.
“It is a risky strategy to do what Rubio is doing,” said New Hampshire-based Republican consultant David Carney, who served as the White House political director under President George H.W. Bush. “If something bad happens, then his entire house of cards will crumble. He needs personal relationships here and people willing to fight for you when times get hard. Otherwise the people with him now because he is winning will go to the next person who starts winning.”
Like Gaisser, a few other town hall meeting guests at his event on Monday left after waiting for Rubio. But more than 200 people stayed the entire time. to hear him speak.
Many Republicans, including Liz Tilton of Laconia, came away impressed. Naomi Fitzgibbons, a Republican from Plainfield, said she was more likely to vote for Rubio after seeing him in person.
She just wished Rubio would have had more time for her questions.