WAKEFIELD, N.H. (CBSNewYork/AP) — U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) warned his party Monday not to abandon its longstanding emphasis on national defense as he launched a two-day tour of New Hampshire.
The 11-term congressman greeted unsuspecting diners Monday morning at restaurant deep in the state’s Lakes Region, part of a New Hampshire visit that served as a coming-out party of sorts for King’s presidential ambitions. He said he is at least a year away from a final decision, but King has officially joined the ballooning group of Republican leaders teasing a presidential bid.
“I believe the Republican Party would be receptive to my candidacy,” King said ahead of the New Hampshire visit.
Though his congressional seniority offers him considerable influence in Washington, King is largely unknown across New Hampshire, the small state expected to host the nation’s first presidential primary contests more than two years from now.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday suggests that he has an uphill climb. More than 70 percent of respondents said they didn’t know who he was.
King laughed off the results.
“I don’t want to peak too early,” he said with a smile outside Lino’s restaurant, where he ate scrambled eggs and ham with his wife, daughter and two grandchildren.
King, 69, talks openly about a possible presidential bid when asked, but has yet to conduct his own polling, expand his staff or court new donors, steps necessary for serious contenders. Yet he arrived in New Hampshire on Sunday evening, his first visit since campaigning for Rudolph Giuliani’s presidential bid in 2008. King said he planned to spend much of Monday in the state before returning to New York.
“We are the number one target in the world of Islamic terrorists,” King declared before an audience of roughly 50 people on Sunday evening as they ate barbecued chicken on a retired New York fire chief’s back deck.
“I would love if we never had to send one solider overseas, or if we never had to be involved in any country in the world. But we live in a dangerous world and we don’t have that luxury,” King said. “We have to go back to being the party of national defense.”
His remarks came minutes after the State Department announced plans to keep facilities in 19 cities closed through the end of the week because of terrorist “chatter.”
“This is a wake-up call,” he said. “Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11 because it has mutated and it’s spread in dramatically different locations. And al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the most deadly of all the al Qaeda affiliates.”
King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, is perhaps best known in national politics for a hawkish approach on national security. He said his presidential bid would be designed, in part, to balance the increasingly vocal libertarian wing of the GOP — led by possible presidential contenders like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — who support significant reductions in U.S. foreign aid and military involvement abroad.
King downplayed specific criticism while speaking in New Hampshire on Sunday night, but cited Paul by name in an interview before the trip.
“If I do run, I intend to win. But certainly, it’s added incentive to prevent the isolationist wing of the party from taking over,” King said. “Someone like Rand Paul has set the Republican Party back 50 years.”
Some diners at Lino’s didn’t recognize King and had little idea who he was even after he introduced himself. But Lino’s regular John Sullivan said he recognized him immediately.
“He seems like a straight shooter,” Sullivan said as King shook hands and made small talk behind him.
Sullivan said he was already paying close attention to the 2016 presidential race, noting that the GOP field was quickly filling up.
“Everyone has feelers out there,” he said. “There must be 30 of them.”
King isn’t on the radar for many veterans of presidential politics in New Hampshire and Washington either, although political operatives suggest that it’s impossible to predict the political climate in 2016. In an election focused on national security, King would enjoy an inherent advantage.
“Representative King is the classic definition of a primary long-shot, but New Hampshire traditionally provides a fair hearing to all presidential candidates, both well-known and obscure,” said Republican strategist Jim Merrill, who led Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire campaign.
King said he already has at least two more New Hampshire visits planned.
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