The 59-year-old is the third Republican 2020 candidate to campaign in New Hampshire in hopes of denting President Donald Trump's reelection chances. Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld announced his run in April but has struggled to gain much of a following despite repeated trips to the state. Joe Walsh, a former tea-party-backed, one-term congressman from Illinois, announced his run last month and made a little-noticed first trip to the state earlier this month.
With several states canceling their early voting contests, the New Hampshire primary is likely the best chance for insurgent GOP candidates to make a show of force against Trump. "I think that a place like New Hampshire that's open to ideas, has a good percentage of independents, is going to prove fertile ground in this larger exploration of whether or not there can be alternatives to Trump in the modern Republican era," Sanford said.
Sanford's first day of campaigning in New Hampshire called for the diner visit in Manchester, a lunchtime stop at the popular Puritan Backroom restaurant and a speech to the Concord GOP at a pizzeria Thursday night.
By luck, some of the voters Sanford encountered at the diner were 2016 GOP primary voters who are less than thrilled with the Trump presidency. "A lot of us over here can't stand what (Trump's) doing," Ernest Chabot, a 72-year-old Republican who voted for then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the 2016 GOP presidential primary and cast a ballot for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the general election.
Others, like 46-year-old independent Kim Mattucci, pressed Sanford on his stance on climate change. Sanford said he believes climate change is real. Mattucci later said she didn't know anything about him before he walked into the diner.
"I think it's good," Mattucci said. "I think Trump probably needs some people to challenge him. I think the American people deserve to have more options." Speaking to a group of fewer than 20 people at a GOP meeting in Concord on Thursday night, Sanford gave Trump kudos for deregulation efforts and judicial appointments. But the national debt was the major subject of Sanford's scorn.
"We are in a precarious financial position, and here's my worry as a Republican," Sanford said. "If we don't have an earnest debate on this front as Republicans ... then you know what's going to happen? Here's what I'll predict. The president will be reelected and he will be the modern-day Herbert Hoover." Hoover was president when the Great Depression began.
The reception at the meeting was polite but chillier than earlier in the day at the diner. New Hampshire GOP Chairman Stephen Stepanek, a supporter of Trump's during the 2016 cycle, sat behind Sanford with his arms crossed as the former governor spoke.
Sanford was also challenged by Laurence Weissbrot, a 71-year-old independent supporter of Trump's, who shares his concerns about the national debt but says Sanford "can't win" and his energy would be better spent supporting the president instead of distracting Trump's campaign with the primary challenge.
Sanford compared the situation to high school football teams getting ready for a Friday night game. "I think we're weaker as a Republican Party if we don't scrimmage," Sanford said. Sanford also emphasized that he isn't delusional about the challenges his run poses.
"If my ideas don't matter, then this thing will die a quick death," Sanford said.