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lawrence martin

My first time at a New Hampshire primary was in 1980 when Ronald Reagan crushed George Bush. Twenty years later, I dropped in on the Granite State to see John McCain overpower George Jr. Now, there's another Bush getting steamrollered here. This time, it's Jeb.

You feel a bit sad about this Bush. He is a nuanced thinker, which in contemporary fire-breathing American politics is a decided handicap. Combine it with his wire-rimmed glasses and pale colouring and he comes across more like a taxidermist than a commander-in-chief.

Jeb's not dead yet. Even a third-place finish in New Hampshire Tuesday night would be interpreted as a win for him and could revive his candidacy.

But thus far, along with John Kasich and Chris Christie, he is one of three experienced governors or former governors who have all been faring miserably in their quest for the nomination. They've been getting battered by alarmists and demagogues, by Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who have succeeded in peddling Armageddon talk. The country is falling off a cliff. They will come to the rescue.

The fire-breathers are fascinating to watch. In the years I've been visiting New Hampshire, I've rarely seen the state in such healthy condition. At less than 4 per cent, unemployment is practically non-existent. In the towns I visited, business was thriving. In the city I stayed in, Portsmouth, the many restaurants were doing such a brisk business, you couldn't find a table.

But to hear the Republicans, you'd think New Hampshire and the rest of the country was a basket case. President Barack Obama is a job-killer and a wage-killer, they cry, despite the economy being on a roll. The U.S. military is being gutted, they cry, despite the fact that the country's defence budget is almost as big as all the other military budgets in the world combined. Obamacare is a disaster, they say, despite its bringing health care to millions previously uninsured.

Disaster? Actually, it's even worse. "Obamacare is the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery," said Ben Carson, another candidate in the alarmist camp.

Donald Trump would throw out the program, of course. The Donald was in full flight here. I caught him at Plymouth State University, where he was issuing a ringing defence of torture. "Waterboarding is peanuts," he said.

The day before, Jeb Bush had returned some insult fire against him. He suggested there might be a problem with Mr. Trump's mental equilibrium. "The guy needs therapy," he said.

Many might agree. But what's striking is that he has survived the fallout from his politically incorrect binges. He will win New Hampshire easily. There is a seductiveness to what he is doing. He is marketing a new form of leadership, one that does away with the old games. You get things done by intimidation, by a direct leveraging of power, by cutting to the chase.

That was the message in the university speech. It was a stream-of-consciousness rant, a billionaire's bluster, hyperbole underpinned by an evidence vacuum.

Ted Cruz, as Jimmy Carter maintains, is even scarier than Mr. Trump. And Marco Rubio has been inflicted with hubris at an early age. He's frightening also.

Jeb Bush argues that "we need someone with a steady hand." John Kasich, the Ohio governor, who is also showing signs of life here, says party and ideology should take a back seat to a balanced approach.

But even if Mr. Kasich or Mr. Bush get some bounce on Tuesday night they are unlikely to threaten the zealots, one of whom will likely win the Republican nomination.

Republican voters revel in all the disaster talk directed at Barack Obama. The question is how it will stack up in the general election in the fall. The basket-case condition was one the country approached in 2008, courtesy of George W. Bush. Since that time good strides have been made. To win on the disaster narrative in the fall would be to succeed on fiction.

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