MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tried to blunt efforts by his rivals to slow his rise in the Republican presidential contest, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looked to close the gap with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire just two days before the state’s pivotal first-in-the-nation primary.
Democratic and Republican candidates alike tried to lower expectations on Sunday for the second contest on the election calendar and position themselves for South Carolina and Nevada, more diverse states where voters next get their say.
On the Democratic side, polls show Sanders leading by double digits in New Hampshire, but Clinton hopes to close the gap to single digits and split the state’s delegates to the national nominating convention.
“I know I’m behind,” Clinton said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Asked if she can win, Clinton answered, “I don’t know.”
Clinton, a narrow winner last Monday in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, has said Sanders has a natural advantage in the northeastern state because he represents the neighboring state of Vermont in the Senate, while Sanders has pointed out that Clinton herself came back to defeat then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 New Hampshire primary.
While her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigned for her in New Hampshire, Clinton took a detour Sunday to visit a church in Flint, Michigan, which is under a state of emergency because the water supply is contaminated with lead from old pipes. She called the water crisis “immoral” and urged Congress to approve $200 million in emergency aid for the city whose population is predominantly black, saying that “repairing trust is as important as repairing pipes.”
Among Republicans, real estate mogul Donald Trump was looking for a first win in New Hampshire after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz upset him in Iowa. Rubio was working to maintain momentum after a close third in the caucuses and rivals such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich were banking on a solid showing Tuesday to propel their campaigns forward — and avoid pressure to quit the race.
Whether or not he wins New Hampshire as the polls suggest, Trump said Sunday that his campaign will continue.
“I don’t think I have to win it,” Trump said on CNN of Tuesday’s vote.
Bush, who entered the race last year as the presumptive front-runner but came in sixth in Iowa with 2.8 percent of the vote, insisted his campaign would continue regardless of the results in New Hampshire.
Rubio, meanwhile, stuck to the talking points on Sunday that drew criticism during his uneven performance in Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate. Christie, in particular, pilloried Florida’s junior senator. Rubio repeatedly answered questions Saturday and Sunday by saying President Barack Obama is intentionally trying to change the country to suit an agenda.
“It’s what I believe,” Rubio said on ABC’s “This Week.” “It’s what I’m going to continue to say, because it happens to be one of the main reasons why I am running.”
Rubio’s uneven debate performance could hurt his bid to emerge as an alternative to Trump and Cruz. Rubio has sought to appeal both to mainstream Republicans and those eager to upend the status quo. But his rivals, particularly Christie, have been blistering in their criticism of what they see as his slim qualifications to serve as commander in chief.
“You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable,” Christie said.
Christie accused Rubio of being a candidate governed by talking points — then pounced when the senator played into his hands by repeating multiple times what appeared to be a planned response to criticisms about his qualifications.
Cruz drew heavily on the support of evangelical voters for his victory in Iowa. But he’s faced criticism for messages his campaign sent to voters ahead of the caucuses saying rival Ben Carson — another favorite of religious social conservatives — was dropping out of the race and urging the retired neurosurgeon’s supporters to back him instead.
Cruz apologized for his campaign’s actions Saturday, but not before Carson jabbed him for having “Washington ethics.”
Those ethics, he said, “say if it’s legal, you do what you do to win.”
Trump was back on the debate stage after skipping the last contest before the Iowa caucuses. He sought to refocus on the core messages of his campaign, including blocking Muslims from coming to the U.S. and deporting all people in the country illegally, all while maintaining he has the temperament to serve as president.
Kasich, who has staked his White House hopes on New Hampshire, offered a more moderate view on immigration, saying if elected president, he would introduce legislation that would provide a pathway to legalizing immigration status, though not citizenship, within his first 100 days in office.
The debate began shortly after North Korea defied international warnings and launched a long-range rocket that the United Nations and others call a cover for a banned test of technology for a missile that could strike the U.S. mainland.
Asked how he would respond to North Korea’s provocations, Bush said he would authorize a pre-emptive strike against such rockets if it was necessary to keep America safe. Trump said he’d rely on China to “quickly and surgically” handle North Korea.