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CONCORD, N.H. — The most dangerous place in the country for Donald Trump is Room 206 in the New Hampshire State Capitol.
It is here, in the office of the governor, that Republican Chris Sununu plans to make a series of telephone calls designed to torpedo Trump’s campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. He won’t be calling the former president; they are no longer on speaking terms. Instead, he’ll be calling Trump’s rivals, one after another, urging them — imploring them, begging them — to leave the race after this state holds the first presidential primary of the 2024 political season.
Every one of a dozen candidates — out, out.
“Out, Out-” is the title of a Robert Frost poem, set in the mountains of New Hampshire’s rugged Franconia Notch, not far from the Old Man of the Mountain rock formation that, until it collapsed into a pile of rocks 20 years ago, was a symbol that, as Daniel Webster put it, this region is where God “makes men.” Sununu aims to be the man who unmakes presidential campaigns.
The Frost verse, a searing tale of a boy being caught in a buzz saw and then dying, is an apt metaphor for dozens of presidential campaigns in this state. It was written in the very year, more than a century ago, that New Hampshire first held a presidential primary. And Sununu’s message, a 21st-century verdict like that of the witnesses in the Frost poem — “No more to build on” — will be going to all but one of Trump’s competitors for the nomination.
Fearful that Trump could glide to the Republican nomination, Sununu is determined to reshape the GOP race into a contest between Trump and only one other candidate, the better to avoid the situation in 2016, when a large field of contenders split the vote and allowed the Manhattan tycoon to ease into the nomination.
For a time, Sununu, 48, considered a presidential campaign of his own. He demurred, announced he would not seek a record fifth gubernatorial term, and has settled into his crusade to deny Trump another lease in the White House.
He’s a relentless critic of the 45th president, considering him selfish as a person and inauthentic as a conservative.
“He said he would drain the swamp,” the governor said in an interview in the very office where those fateful phone calls will be made. “He didn’t do it. He said he’d balance the budget. Worst in history. To have a Republican who doesn’t care about fiscal management is awful. Not only is he not electable, he hurts the whole party. Everybody gets defined by him, and he wasn’t ever a Republican in his values. He’s not a team player. He is horribly disloyal.”
So how does the governor of the 42nd largest state in the country shape the Republican presidential race — and how does he accomplish that after the campaign has left New Hampshire and moved on?
He figures that there will be some natural attrition from the ranks of candidates. Perhaps five of them won’t qualify for this month’s debate, essentially dooming their campaigns. By his reckoning, around Halloween another four or five will calculate that “they’re just not going anywhere, they’re not catching fire,” and they, too, will exit the race. He figures there will be only a handful of candidates left by mid-January, when New Hampshire expects to hold its primary.
He’s already spoken with all the candidates besides Trump, and he has told them they must depart the campaign so as to assure that several anti-Trump candidates don’t split the vote and permit the former president to win primary after primary with small pluralities. He wants the campaign to get to a one-on-one contest, Trump against a single challenger. If the former president gets his core 40%, the other candidate will get the remaining 60%.
“To get to one-on-one, it isn’t just Chris Sununu saying ‘you have to get out of the race,’” he said. “I and others will have heart-to-heart conversations with the candidates. They’re all my friends. I’m not out to embarrass them. And it won’t just be me. It also will be their significant donors.”
He believes the candidates’ donors are the key. “With their help, we can persuade them that it’s not only the best thing for them, but also the best thing for the party,” he said.
Sununu operates from strength as a member of a significant New Hampshire political dynasty. There have been powerful political families throughout its history: Four members of the Bass family were involved in the state’s politics for three-quarters of a century beginning in 1905. Two members of the Gregg family were governors, with one going on to the Senate. The McLean family accounts for a mayor of Concord and a longtime state senator, with the latest entrant, Democratic Rep. Annie McLane Kuster, in her sixth term in the U.S. House. The current governor is the youngest link on the Sununu chain that, among three family members, includes seven terms as governor, three terms in the U.S. House and one in the Senate, plus a stint as White House chief of staff.
It’s the two years that the governor’s father, John H. Sununu, spent as White House chief of staff that is significant here. The elder Sununu was catapulted to that position after he intervened in the 1988 campaign by endorsing Vice President George H.W. Bush and plotting his route to victory in the New Hampshire primary. Lesson learned: A governor of this state has enormous political influence.
Getting candidates out of the race has become a party-wide avocation. The other day, Trump described his rivals as “clowns,” urged them all to withdraw from the campaign and, at a rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, said, “Every dollar spent attacking me by Republicans is a dollar given straight to the Biden campaign.” Moments after Trump was indicted for the third time, one of those rivals, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, speaking at a barbecue in Rye, New Hampshire, said, “Donald Trump should step away from the campaign for the good of the country. If not, the voters must choose another path.”
Sununu was the first, and almost certainly the most significant, to issue such a withdrawal call. More are coming.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.