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Roll Call

Trump: Lots of Sizzle But No Ground Game

Reality Star Has Lone New Hampshire Operative on ’12 Team

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His first visit to New Hampshire was a media circus. But there is little sign that Donald Trump, the reality television star some believe may become a credible presidential contender, is building a team of local operatives to drive the kind of retail political strategy Granite State voters largely require.

While other likely GOP presidential candidates have spent weeks, if not months, building a local ground game, Trump has done virtually nothing to date in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
He relied upon the New Hampshire Republican Party to help arrange the details for last week's tour. And the man behind New Hampshire's "Draft Trump" effort told Roll Call that he has yet to meet or talk to Trump himself.

"I'm not privy to what's gong on over there," said Mark LaLiberte, a real estate agent who previously worked for then-Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta (R), now a Member of the House.

"I don't know if they have anyone on the ground yet," LaLiberte said. "I'm pretty much doing this on my own."

There is believed to be just one New Hampshire operative regularly dealing directly with Trump's New York operation. Curtis Barry, a longtime political player who now serves as a Concord-based lobbyist, described his role so far as simply "doing a favor for a friend."

He is serving as an unpaid middle man of sorts, helping to connect Trump's team with New Hampshire groups that are growing increasingly eager to meet with the television star.

And while he said Trump's potential presidential run may be growing more serious, Barry added that Trump, like any other credible contender, cannot do well in New Hampshire without working for it.

"New Hampshire primary history is littered with people who didn't take the New Hampshire process seriously," he said. "I think Rudy Giuliani is the most recent example. Both activists and voters understand that. You end up paying a price if you don't take it seriously."

That's a sentiment echoed by other experienced New Hampshire players who have watched media coverage of Trump's political activities with a curious skepticism.

"If he's serious, he has huge work to do," said Mike Dennehy, previously a top strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and one of the state's few uncommitted top operatives.

Dennehy cited Steve Forbes, the well-known conservative publisher who jumped into the 1996 presidential contest a few months before the New Hampshire primary.

"He plunked down millions of dollars on TV advertising about the flat tax, which was very appealing to some people. His numbers skyrocketed. But he had no base, nothing beneath it," Dennehy recalled of the GOP primary in which Forbes ultimately finished fourth. "Anyone thinking that Donald Trump can win with just money is crazy."

Some believe that Trump has the potential to be a 2012 player, however. And there are signs that he's planting some local seeds.

On last week's trip, he briefly met with GOP strategist Alicia Preston and conservative activist Fran Wedelboe, a former state Representative. And he certainly knows how to draw a crowd.

That was on display in New Hampshire last week, when Trump toured the populous seacoast region and attracted curious Granite State residents virtually everywhere he went. There will likely be more gawkers on May 11, when the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce hosts a luncheon featuring Trump as its guest of honor and speaker.

The 600-person venue sold out in five hours, according to Barry, who helped coordinate the visit. And chamber CEO J. Christopher Williams told Roll Call that there's currently a 400-person waiting list.

"I've been doing events like this for eight years and have organized similar events for other political figures such as [former Vice President Dick] Cheney in 2004, Dick Morris in 2006 and Mitt Romney in 2007, to name a few. Never have I had this sort of response as we've had with Donald Trump, where we sold 600 tickets in a matter of hours and still have a waiting list nearly as long," Williams said. "It's quite remarkable."

New Hampshire conservative leader Ovide Lamontagne said Trump appears to have filled "a breach in leadership" among the current field of likely presidential candidates.

"I think, if anything, that is evidence that the voters are hungry for someone who's willing to be bold as a leader. ... He's been willing to be bold," Lamontagne said. "That is right now one of the reasons why it's been, I guess, frustrating, or disappointing, in the slow pace with which the race is taking shape. There's some urgency here."

Should he decide to enter the race in earnest, Lamontagne agrees that Trump has work to do, "but in his case, if he can maintain some momentum, I think he can build that organization rather quickly. You can see an event where he draws a large crowd. If he has people signing up as supporters, you can fairly quickly develop the rudiments of a field organization."

Lamontagne's bottom line: "I take everyone seriously."

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