New Hampshire Is Do-or-Die for Governors in 2016 Race

BEDFORD, New Hampshire — On a Saturday morning in snowy New Hampshire, a woman asked Gov. Jeb Bush how he'd take care of the country's veterans. She recounted how her father had spent nearly a decade trying to escape the bureaucratic nightmare created when the Department of Veterans of Affairs, amid a billing dispute, inaccurately declared him dead for nine months.

Bush told the nation that story ten hours later in the debate, an offering that sounded particularly organic coming from the left of Marco Rubio, who trotted out rehearsed talking points repeatedly.

Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) participate in the Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College February 6, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) participate in the Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College February 6, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

"I met him, he's voting for me," Bush said energetically. After months of trailing in middle-of-the-pack obscurity despite relentless campaigning across the state, Bush fought back. He's not alone, either: all three Republican governors who have lagged in the polls made a final stand last night, clawing their way into the spotlight in Saturday's debate after a handful of encouraging days on the trail.

It couldn't have come at a more crucial time for them: the three governors are facing a do-or-die moment on Tuesday. Armed with the kind of résumés that might have wowed the nation in any other year and campaigning heavily in a state that seemed likely to lift up their more moderate policies and executive experience, they've struggled in the polls against national front-runner Donald Trump and Rubio.

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll conducted after the Iowa results, Trump's pulling in 30 percent of likely GOP primary followers, followed by Rubio at 17 percent. Iowa's caucus winner, Sen. Ted Cruz, snags 15 percent, while John Kasich has 10 percent of the vote, Bush has 9 percent and Chris Christie has 4 percent.

Perhaps no one has felt the burn like Bush: he's the third in his family to seek the presidency and the candidate initially thought to be so strong that he'd raked in millions to support his bid before he'd even announced. But in a race that's favored massive rallies and Trump's promises of "so much winning," Bush's humble, hardworking, elbow-grease campaign message hasn't impressed.

"We better role up our sleeves and start fixing this. Our political system is broken. We need someone who isn't driven by his own ego and ambition. We need someone with a servant's heart," he said on Saturday morning to a packed room middle school cafeteria, pitching optimism, small government, compromise, and detailed policy proposals.

Meanwhile, Kasich and Christie are both driving in the same lane, looking for a show of support that propels their campaigns beyond next Tuesday.

More from NBC News:
Trump plays up populism, says candidates are bought
Four takeaways from the GOP debate
Watch the most talked about Super Bowl ads

On Friday, Gov. John Kasich took the stage at his 100th town hall — complete with a half-dozen white and blue cakes frosted by a staffer — and talked about how he'd risen from a nobody on the national stage to a somebody through his heavy campaigning.

"We have a celebrity thing going on now. You know, I'm totally unknown across the country, maybe a little bit better across the last few weeks. But nobody knows who the governor of Ohio is. They don't know if it's 'Kasich, or 'Kays,' or 'Cos-itch,' they don't know. So many of them just think my name is 'governor of Ohio,'" he joked at the Friday night event, where he touted his executive and legislative experience.

He grew suddenly serious, though, when talking about just how crucial this moment is for him.

"But if I emerge from here I will have a moment to talk about what we need to do," he said.

Earlier that morning, another Republican governor — also once thought to be an obvious front-runner who has since been drowned out by the other loudmouthed candidate from New England, Trump — spoke at a cramped pizza shop.

New Jersey's Chris Christie solemnly thanked the small town where he'd made his first campaign stop eight months ago. The New Jersey governor's cash is running out, and without a strong finish in New Hampshire the odds certainly seem insurmountable.

"There's a lot of hard work to do between now and Tuesday, we hope you'll all be a part of that," he told voters, who were so packed into the shop that they could barely move. "Keep up the hard work for us, and we'll keep up the hard work for you."

His supporters said they're all in.

"He said if he wins New Hampshire he's going all the way, so we've got his back," a local Spanish teacher Coral Hampe, 33, told MSNBC outside the shop, adding that she wouldn't even consider another candidate unless Christie was out. "Look at the way Trump did in Iowa, [the pollsters] all thought he was going to run away in Iowa and he came in second."

And on Saturday night, Christie was on fire, neutralizing — at least temporarily — the surging Rubio by pointing out just how much he was repeating his stump speech.

"There it is," he said in a damaging exchange. "The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody."

And there it was: the governors who surely thought they'd dominate the stage when they entered the race — only to be drowned out by others — were back in the spotlight.