WAKEFIELD, N.H. – New York Republican Congressman Peter King is warning his party not to abandon its longstanding emphasis on national defense as he launches a two-day tour of New Hampshire.
The 11-term congressman sipped Coke and posed for pictures Sunday evening at a backyard barbecue deep in the state's Lakes Region, an event that served as a coming-out party of sorts for King's presidential ambitions. He says 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.
King, 69, talks openly about a possible presidential bid when asked, but has yet to conduct polling, expand his staff or court new donors, steps necessary for serious contenders. Yet he arrived in New Hampshire Sunday evening, his first visit here since campaigning for Rudolph Giuliani's presidential bid in 2008. King plans to spend much of Monday in the state.
"We are the Number 1 target in the world of Islamic terrorists," King declared before an audience of roughly 50 people — his wife, daughter and two grandchildren among them — 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."
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 says 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 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."
Those who attended Sunday's barbecue largely agreed with King's view, although they were quick to point out that the election is years away.
"He's straightforward, very blunt. I like that," said barbecue host Don Rowan, a former fire chief from King's Long Island district who moved to New Hampshire several years ago. "But the election is a long way off. You never know."
King isn't on the radar for many veterans of presidential politics in New Hampshire and Washington, 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 says he already has at least two more New Hampshire visits planned.