- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 10, 2014

Some of the top names in the speculation over the GOP’s presidential nomination battle will converge on New Hampshire on Saturday for the inaugural “Freedom Summit,” an event that locals say confirms that the 2016 primary season has already begun in this critical state.

More than 20 months before the first votes are cast in the nomination race, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen Ted Cruz of Texas, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and businessman Donald Trump, each of whom is actively pursuing or at least publicly toying with the idea of a presidential bid, will speak this weekend.

Their appearances come roughly a month after the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference in Nashua, N.H., which featured two other possible 2016 White House hopefuls: former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, plans to deliver the keynote address next month at the Rockingham County Republican Committee’s annual “Freedom Founder’s Dinner.” And GOP insiders say that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will parachute into the Granite State in the near future.

“It kinds of feels like the first pitch here in the primary,” said Jim Merrill, who served as the New Hampshire state director to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.

The uptick in action in New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the-nation primary, reflects the wide-open nature of the 2016 GOP nomination race.

In the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls, Mr. Paul is leading the pack, followed by Mr. Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee. But nobody leads in every poll, as Hillary Rodham Clinton does on the Democratic side, or even consistently draws as much as 25 percent support.

David N. Bossie, president of Citizens United, said this weekend’s gathering in Manchester, sponsored by his group and Americans for Prosperity, gives potential candidates a chance to speak directly to the voters who will decide the state’s first-in-the-nation primary.

He said the real visits will begin at the end of this year, after the mid-term congressional elections, but an early start doesn’t hurt.

“You will see a lot of people making moves in November and December,” Mr. Bossie said. “However, we know that it is important for these people and some that aren’t able to attend to lay the groundwork now, to sow the seeds that they want to have already there in the fabric of these important early primary states and caucuses so that they are able to really hit the ground running in November and December. That they are not starting from scratch.”

Greg Moore, state director of AFP-New Hampshire, described the summit as the first “cattle call” of 2016 and said the event sold out within 24 hours, when activists were only aware that Mr. Paul and Mr. Trump would attend.

“This group we are going to be seeing on Saturday probably leans more libertarian then tea party,” Mr. Moore said. “It will be interesting to see how that dynamic will work with Sen. Paul and Sen. Cruz.”

Mr. Moore noted that Mr. Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul, has had a big presence in New Hampshire and has the advantage of being able to build off the loyal band of followers that helped power his father to a second-place finish in the 2012 GOP primary.

On Friday, the younger Mr. Paul is also holding a rally and private reception for the New Hampshire Republican State Committee.

Mr. Cruz, meanwhile, will be making his second trip to New Hampshire.

Mr. Cruz and Mr. Paul could very well be on a collision course for who represents the grassroots wing of the conservative movement against the pick of the GOP establishment.

Others scheduled to attend this weekend include Sens. Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, and Mike Lee, of Utah, Reps. Steve King, of Iowa, and Marsha Blackburn, of Tennessee, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and radio talk show host Laura Ingraham.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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