- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

NASHUA, New Hampshire (AP) - For New Hampshire Republicans, the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign feel like an embarrassment of riches.

The state’s notoriously fickle, independent-minded voters are relishing a wide-open Republican race and are in no hurry to crown a front-runner. Nearly 20 potential candidates - senators, governors, business executives and more - have paraded through the state in recent days to curry favor with voters and court party leaders.

“The more, the better,” said Jim Blake, a Republican from Londonderry.

The Republican landscape is the antithesis of the Democratic side on the nomination chase, where Hillary Rodham Clinton appears unlikely to face a serious primary challenge. Republican voters are cheering that contrast, and expect that the candidate who emerges from the GOP race will be battle-tested for the general election.

John Cebrowski, a Republican from Bedford, called his party’s options “an all-star lineup” and the Democrats’ “like Double A ball.”

Some New Hampshire Democrats should get a glimpse of Clinton on Monday when she plans her first campaign trip to the state this time around. Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who may challenge Clinton, has visited New Hampshire in recent weeks.

A two-day Republican forum that ended Saturday in Nashua had the air of the frenzied final days of a primary contest, not a mid-April weekend the year before anyone votes.

In between speeches at the sold-out event, hopefuls stopped in southern New Hampshire towns, and voters crammed into diners and attended house parties. T-shirt and button sellers hawked their wares everywhere.

At an event Sunday in Derry, voters pressed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on economic growth, taxes and his stance on Russia and NATO. One voter asked Walker if he would consider a possible Supreme Court ruling that could extend gay marriage nationwide as ending the debate on that issue.

“I think it should be left to the states,” Walker said, sidestepping the question about the high court’s role.

The same cast of Republican White House hopefuls has passed through Iowa, the only state that makes its presidential picks before New Hampshire. But the outcome in Iowa’s Republican caucuses tends to be heavily influenced by religious and social conservatives, leaving many candidates to view New Hampshire as their main focus.

In the past two presidential elections, New Hampshire Republicans have handed victories to the party’s eventual nominees, politicians already well-known to the state. In 2008, it was Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had won the state’s primary in 2000. In 2012, it was Mitt Romney, who has served as governor of neighboring Massachusetts and has a home in New Hampshire.

Many of the 2016 contenders are unknown to New Hampshire Republicans - a welcome change to some voters.

“It’s nice to see some new blood,” said Bert Sell, a Republican from Londonderry. He had dropped by a house party in Manchester to hear 43-year-old Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Besides Rubio, only Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky have entered the race. Others expected to announce soon include Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Tom Rath, a New Hampshire Republican adviser who worked for Romney in 2012, said voters are excited to influence a relatively even playing field.

“We’re not ratifying a decision that the politics elites have already made,” Rath said. “We always say we’re not doing that. This time we mean it.”

The electorate’s enthusiasm over the big lineup appears to be affecting the way some the candidates are positioning themselves.

“How lucky are we as a party that we have such a broad field of so many qualified people?” asked Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive who may join that field soon.

Bush may be the closest to a front-runner, largely because of his family name recognition and the backing of wealthy donors. But he, too, played down any notion that he may be leading the pack.

“I don’t see any coronation coming my way,” Bush told Republican activists in Nashua. “I’m really intimidating a whole bunch of folks, aren’t I?”

Some of the Republicans touring New Hampshire will decide not to run or drop out before the New Hampshire primary. With that early February vote still about 300 days away, New Hampshire-based Republican strategist David Carney said he expects many in the state to wait several months before deciding on a favorite.

“They’re going to see every single person, go to every summer cookout, shake everyone’s hand, get every selfie,” Carney said.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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