LACONIA, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Longtime Donald Trump supporter Doug Lambert agrees with the former president that the potential criminal charges he faces in New York are being cooked up by his enemies on the left. But, Lambert worries about the "messiness" of a Trump presidential candidacy and is leaning towards voting for someone else.
Like other Republicans in New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the second nominating contest in presidential election years, Lambert, 58, the owner of a manufacturing company, will be among the earliest to weigh in on Trump's viability for the Republican nomination in 2024.
"With my primary vote I want to make sure that I put somebody up that I can agree with, that supports my values, but is also electable," said Lambert, who voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020 and is vice chair of the Republican Party in Belknap, the state's reddest county.
"If I was voting today I would vote for Ron DeSantis," he said, referring to the Florida governor who has not yet officially announced a White House run but is seen as a leading contender for the nomination and is Trump's biggest challenger.
Trump has sought to solidify support for his candidacy by presenting himself as a victim of a politically motivated investigation by New York prosecutors that could lead to his indictment for alleged hush money payments he made to porn star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 election campaign. Trump has denied making the payments.
But interviews with a dozen Republican voters in Belknap this week found that while Trump supporters still held affection for the former president and were considering his candidacy, many were also looking at who else is in the field.
A majority of those interviewed said they agreed with Trump's allegations - for which he has offered no evidence - that Democrats were using the legal system to hurt his candidacy, but none saw the indictment as a persuasive argument to firmly back him.
Nearly all said they were also interested in DeSantis, who is visiting New Hampshire next month, as well as their own state's governor, Chris Sununu, who is flirting with a run.
"I think our governor here in New Hampshire would be a very good choice. He's a real level-headed guy," said Raymond Peavey, 56, a former Marine who voted for Trump twice but wants to assess the other candidates before committing to him again.
POLLING IS MIXED
Benefiting from a large field of candidates and tapping into the angst of working-class voters, Trump handily won the New Hampshire primary in 2016 in a prelude to victories across the Northeast and ultimately the Republican nomination.
With at least 10 months to go before the primary, surveys have provided a mixed picture of Trump's chances in 2024.
In a University of New Hampshire poll in January, likely Republican voters preferred DeSantis over Trump by a 12-point margin, 42% to 30%, with Sununu at 4%. That contrasts with an Emerson College poll released this month before Trump announced he would be arrested that showed the former president with 58% support in the state, trouncing DeSantis at 17%.
Dante Scala, a politics professor at the University of New Hampshire, said he believed most Republican voters would shrug off any charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who Trump has accused of reviving a case already reviewed by federal prosecutors for political ends.
"But when you get to the case in Georgia or indictments concerning January 6th, they might be more serious problems," he said, referring to a Fulton County, Georgia investigation into Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election results there and a separate federal probe into his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack by his supporters on the U.S. Capitol.
"The more indictments, the more points of leverage a DeSantis or whoever can use to make the case against Trump."
Even with its relatively small population of 1.4 million, New Hampshire has for decades held the second nominating contest in presidential election cycles, giving its voters outsized influence in the pivotal early days of White House campaigns.
While Trump is seen as having a lock on 25-30% of Republican voters, there are signs across the country that many Republicans are looking for an alternative candidate who can achieve conservative policy wins but without the drama the real estate magnate brought to the White House.
Political strategists and analysts say if Trump is charged he may succeed in rallying diehard supporters to his side but that independents and Republican moderates will almost certainly distance themselves.
Prudy Veysey, a Republican from Belknap, is hoping her state will send an early message on Trump's viability.
"We’ve seen the chaos and the havoc," said the 63-year-old retired office manager who has never voted for the former president. "It's just time to move on from Trump."
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Laconia, New Hampshire; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)