What are the issues you’ve heard New Hampshire residents bring up the most?
I think they think the system doesn’t work for them. I think they’re skeptical. … They think that rich, powerful special interests call the tune.
Do you have a specific way to address that problem?
Yeah, they don’t … call the tune with me — the special interests, the rich and the powerful, they don’t.
Would you institute any reforms or changes to change the system?
At any level you have to be careful that you’re looking at problems and solving them and you’re not playing politics or in the business of catering to somebody to avoid solving a problem. … The other thing that I think is important is people have to realize that when you get knocked down, you have to get back up again. Grit and determination is a really big part of life. That’s how you have success. Even though you think that somebody’s taking advantage of you, get up, fight for yourself. You’re going to have success if you’re willing to stand up, fight and not take no or a setback as the final word.
The L.A. Times recently put you in the same category as Jeb Bush and Chris Christie: serious, pragmatic establishment candidates trying to provide an answer to Donald Trump. How do you differ from Bush and Christie?
It’s my record, I would say. First of all, I have foreign policy experience, which neither of them have. And secondly, Bush was governor years ago, and when you look at Ohio compared to New Jersey, it’s like day and night. We’re growing jobs, our credit is strong, our pensions are strong and we’re structurally balanced. You don’t find that over there.
Can you elaborate on your foreign policy experience?
Yeah, I served on the defense committee for 18 years. And, after the 9/11 attacks, I was called into the Pentagon by the secretary of defense to hear what the problems were and the challenges were. Then I spent a number of years leading people into the Pentagon to solve some of their technical problems. … When I went to Congress, they didn’t even have a seat on the defense committee and I couldn’t get a seat on any other committee, so Tip O’Neill actually made extra seats on the committee at the request of the Republicans.
You’re in the middle of the polls, but you struggle with net favorability. According to the UNH Survey Center, you dropped from 21 points in September to 1 point in December. Do you have any theories about that?
Well, [more recently] we have polls showing my favorability going up significantly, so I don’t know how to respond to that. … First of all, I was really pretty unknown here for a very, very long time. So, I suppose when you’re known by fewer, then the situation can be people can latch on one way or another. But, now that I’m known by more, our favorability has risen in the last poll. I was one point out of second place.
How do you plan on gaining momentum in the weeks leading up to the primary?
I think we have momentum now. Maybe not great momentum, but I don’t know who really does. I leave that to John Sununu and the New Hampshire team. We have the best ground game. We have people going, we have so many volunteers now. It’s going to create … the single best ground game I think the state has ever seen, to be honest with you. Because we have very smart people who are working with the very smart people here. ... I think it’s about solid block and tackle, that’s what I think it is. I think ground games work and I think they make a huge difference in the outcome of an election.
With which Republican candidate are you furthest apart on policy or ideology?
My record is of conservatism. Cutting taxes, school choice, balancing budgets, transferring power, when I was in Washington balancing the budget, capital gains cuts, welfare reform, shifting power out of Washington, shifting it out of Columbus into local communities. I don’t study everybody else’s record, to tell you the truth. I don’t see everything they’re saying. I just want their records to be realistic.
What do you see as the greatest national security threat the country’s facing right now?
Well, radical jihad, but what’s really the most concerning, evolving over time, is their ability to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction — a non-state group — is really what I’m concerned about. If you know that a country has it, they want to survive too, in most cases. But, it’s a group that has no country, has no uniform, what I’m worried about with them, whether I’m president or not, for my daughter’s future, is their ability to get their hands on very powerful weapons to do us really serious, serious damage.
What’s something odd about running for president that you think most people don’t realize?
I would say what’s interesting about it is it’s very demanding physically. What you see is, over time, you adapt to it. It’s like running a mile. You don’t start off by running a mile … or a 5K or something. You run the first mile, then your body just adjusts. … You’re in planes, you’re out of planes, you’re making speeches. For me, speeches are very draining. When I speak, most of the time, unless they yell at me for being short, I pour everything out on the floor. So, it can be tiring, but you adjust to it.
Did you see the new Star Wars movie?
I did not. I don’t have time to go to movies now. But my daughter and I, over Christmas, watched Star Wars VI. And I told her just to keep her calendar open: “Don’t be going with anybody else to see the new Star Wars movie. I’m going to take you, you’ve just got to be patient with me until I have some time.” But it won’t be before the New Hampshire primary.
— Ryan Lessard
This interview was edited and condensed.