How Republicans are trying to reach centrist women in New Hampshire

People applaud as Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during a town hall event in Dover, New Hampshire. —Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The Republican presidential race has seemed at times like a contest of schoolyard insults and chest-thumping machismo. With Donald J. Trump leading the way, the campaign has repeatedly descended into a kind of primal struggle among men, each seeking to outdo his rivals through brutish intimidation.

But as the race has moved to New Hampshire, its tone has quietly, but noticeably, changed: Candidates who once vied to throw the hardest rhetorical punch are campaigning in gentler terms, emphasizing their compassion and human frailty, and especially their concern for women and families.

The adjustment is no coincidence: New Hampshire women, many of them independents or moderate Republicans — some supporting abortion rights — have emerged as perhaps the most critical swing vote in the primary next week.

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Tara McCarthy, 49, of Henniker, New Hampshire, said she had been deluged by overtures from the campaigns as she tried to decide between Jeb Bush, a Republican, and Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, based on the issues she sees as most relevant to women.

“I am the unicorn,’’ said McCarthy, who works in sales. “I am female, working, middle-aged, and independent, and it’s true — I have no fewer than five voicemails on my phone every time I get home.’’

In polls, fewer women than men say they have made a final decision about whom to support, and they have been far more likely than men to recoil from Trump, who has the most support here among Republicans overall. These voters, especially for the candidates positioned closer to the political center, have become the focus of the campaign.

In a Republican field of candidates with only one woman — Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive — several of her rivals have enlisted female political allies and family members as running mates of sorts.

Bush, the former Florida governor, announced that his mother, Barbara Bush, would join him on the trail on Thursday. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio has hit the stump with his lieutenant governor, Mary Taylor. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, already accompanied by his wife, Mary Pat, has enlisted Meg Whitman, the current chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, to campaign with him here.

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Asked on Tuesday what message he hoped his mother would deliver, Bush sounded a sweet note: “That she loves me, that she supports me,’’ he said, “and that she thinks I’m a capable leader — and she knows a little about it because she’s had a front-row seat watching two presidents be president.’’

In television advertising, too, the candidates have stepped up appeals to women. In one, Bush says it is “not strong to insult women,’’ with a clip of Megyn Kelly of Fox News saying Trump has “a woman problem.’’ A digital ad shows Penny Morrill, the retired director of a Florida domestic violence shelter, saying that because of Bush, “Women and children in the state of Florida are much safer.’’

And a super PAC supporting Kasich released an ad attacking Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for having opposed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. (The group withdrew the commercial after Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., criticized it.)

Fiorina has a busy campaign schedule in New Hampshire and television ads supporting her campaign are on the air, but she has struggled to break through in the crowded race and has been stuck near the bottom of primary polls.

Whitman, stopping by Christie’s campaign office in Bedford on Tuesday, said women would be pivotal in his campaign and that she hoped to serve as a character witness.

“It’s super-important that they understand Chris’ points of view, and understand what a good man he is,’’ she said. “If you’re going to win, you’re going to have to get a disproportionate share of women’s votes.’’

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For women in the vital band of centrist voters, the courtship has become incessant. Women who are unaffiliated with a party are especially sought after because they can vote in either party’s primary.

McCarthy, the independent from Henniker, said she was looking for a candidate who took a “moderate approach,’’ and said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the Iowa caucus winner, and Trump were totally unappealing. “I wouldn’t even consider them,’’ she said. “As a woman, I really wouldn’t.’’

Women have long played a pivotal role here as voters and officeholders. In 2012, New Hampshire became the only state to elect a congressional delegation of all women. After the 2008 election, a majority of the members of the state Senate were women. And in 2016, the state has the only all-women Senate race: Ayotte, the incumbent, against Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat.

In presidential primaries, New Hampshire women are typically more influential on the Democratic side. But the Republican race this year has shaped up differently: With Trump collecting an outsize share of men’s votes, his opponents have pursued women with vigor.

A poll last week by CNN and the New Hampshire television station WMUR found that while 35 percent of men supported Trump, only about a quarter of women planned to vote for him. More than 4 in 10 women said they would never vote for him.

Clara Frechette, 53, a tax analyst from Keene, said at a Bush event on Tuesday that she was undecided between four candidates: Bush and Kasich on the Republican side, and Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, on the Democratic side. Trump and Cruz, she said, were nonstarters.

“I don’t think Trump really cares about women, and their being equal to men,’’ Frechette said. Of Cruz, she added, “You think he’d be looking at the Bible and say, ‘The man should be the head of the household and the women should do what the men say.’’’

The quest to connect with moderate women has drawn out some unexpected — and sometimes awkward — moments from the candidates. Kasich, who speaks often about being a father of teenage daughters, joked in Merrimack about having worked out at a gym recently because, he said, “My wife likes my legs.’’

And if there has been an outbreak of gentility across the Republican field, there is a conspicuous exception for one woman: Clinton. On Wednesday, Christie may have struck an off note when he said that, in a hypothetical debate with Clinton, he would “beat her rear end on that stage.’’ (The comment echoed a previous comment by Cruz, who said last month that Clinton deserved a “spanking’’ and suggested that she engaged in a cover-up in the Benghazi attacks of 2012.)

Abortion is a delicate topic for many Republican candidates. Rubio, who has said that he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, navigated the issue gingerly on Wednesday, assuring a voter in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, than he could empathize with young women facing unintended pregnancies.

“It’s a tough issue,’’ he said. “You have a young 15-year-old that faces a crisis pregnancy and she’s scared. Her whole life is ahead of her.’’

Christie, who made a reputation for himself by theatrically berating his New Jersey critics in public events, took a decidedly softer tone when a Portsmouth woman pressed him on his view of attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. Christie, who has endorsed such efforts, conceded that some Republicans had been “extraordinarily divisive’’ on the issue.

And in Hopkinton, Christie answered a query about his abortion stance in part by describing a text message his college-age daughter had sent him that night, saying she was proud of him.

“Well, you know, that got me weeping on the plane,’’ Christie said. “It got Mary Pat weeping on the plane. That’s what life and love entering your heart can do.’’

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