EXETER, N.H. — Norm Phillips, 95, is the kind of person who belongs in a campaign video.
He is both an Air Force and Air Corps veteran, flew different planes in different wars. He was shot down in Laos and rescued. He has climbed mountains and taught sculpture. The late writer James Salter dedicated a book to him. He himself published a book about flying.
Nearing his centenary, he looks about 73. He and a group of other older gentlemen, mostly conservative, mostly veterans, like to gather in a coffee shop here to analyze the state of the nation and the succession of presidential candidates who come to town. Yesterday, in a town hall across the street from the shop, it was Donald Trump.
If Trump becomes president, Phillips says, he'd head for Canada.
Beaten, but not broken
After losing the Iowa caucus to Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump was a little more reticent than usual.
Needless to say this didn't last long.
He has spent the week railing at Cruz and stumping for support in New Hampshire, where he still holds a comfortable lead in the polls.
In a field of career politicians, Trump's independence and willingness to say what he feels can seem refreshing to voters. His fabulous wealth can be read as a marker of success and a promise of independence. His "straight talk" cuts through the niceties of usual political discourse.
There is a visceral appeal in this kind of showmanship. Voters to whom this appeal truly resonates are unlikely to be dissuaded by any other arguments.
For now, Trump is at the mercy of New Hampshire voters, who are supposedly different from others: famously independent, famously last-minute in their choices.
But the concrete difference is that they see candidates face to face to a degree far exceeding any American outside of Iowa. They have their chances to see the candidates beyond sound bites, to hear full speeches, to assess the tenor of physical presence.
Full of words, signifying nothing
Trump poses a serious challenge for those voters willing to really listen. Because the candidate makes no sense.
A casual reader of Trump's campaign statements might notice it. A close inspection of the looseness of his debate performance could give pause. But listening to a full Trump speech is a disturbing example of nonsense packaged for emotional appeal.
In Exeter, at a rally that had the usual staples of the Trump campaign — protesters, merchandise salesmen, The Wall, jobs going to Mexico — Trump rambled his way to a policy or two that wouldn't have seemed unfamiliar coming out of Hillary Clinton's mouth: the indignities of high prescription drug prices.
Saying that he would end price gouging, he added, "We have such buying power it's beyond what anybody has ever had. We have massive buying power. And this is for so many things."
Those things? Presumably airplanes: "I read the other day — I shouldn't talk about this because if I win it'd be nice to use it, but I read the other day they're getting a new Air Force One — which we should have by the way, the old one spews into the air."
Trump then free-associates on the hypocrisy of President Barack Obama's position on climate change.
"Either you have to be a believer or you can't be a believer, but you can't do that. It's not right. It's not fair." His very next line:
"I will say this, I'm gonna spend so much time in the White House. Who would want to leave the White House? Although I'm building a hotel next door…" Which leads to a discussion of his property development.
It sounds like a comedian dropping filler, in search of applause.
New Hampshire voters have a ticket to the show, and hopefully some of those who haven't made up their mind will be put out by Trump's lack of seriousness.
After New Hampshire, Trump and the rest of the candidates will be bundled up, swaddled in a cocoon of security and briefer stops — but not before New Hampshire voters have a chance to see them up close.
They can be a firewall against him, or at least slow him down. Farther from the ground, Trump will recede into what he always was — television.
This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers. Did someone forward you this email? Subscribe at amny.com/amexpress.