CONCORD, N.H. - Three more Republican presidential candidates added their names to New Hampshire's primary ballot on Thursday, using the Granite State political ritual to defend the first primary and contrast their positions on immigration.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all filed here before speaking to reporters. And it was Santorum who knocked Cruz just moments after his GOP rival had left New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner's office.
"The guy that was just in here, he makes big passionate speeches about, you know, how tough he's going be on illegal immigration," Santorum said. But during the immigration debate that took place in 2013, Santorum said, Cruz offered an amendment that "allowed people to stay here in this country indefinitely."
Allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the country, dubbed by opponents as "amnesty," has become the latest flashpoint in the 2016 GOP primary. Cruz offered an amendment to a bipartisan immigration reform bill that would have allowed some undocumented immigrants to stay in the country with legal status.
During his presidential run, Cruz has been one of the most vocal opponents of amnesty. Talking about this week's debate, he said, "You saw candidate after candidate basically compose an epic poem to amnesty."
"I have to admit as I was standing there listening to it, I think I had the sentiments that millions of Americans across this country had, which is my head was exploding," Cruz continued. His comments came one day after hitting the rest of the Republican field on immigration after a town hall in Kingston, New Hampshire where he said, "If Republicans nominate for president a candidate who supports amnesty, we will have given up one of the major distinctions with Hillary Clinton and we will lose the general election."
Graham, who was the first of the three to file Thursday, called the day one of the "highlights of my life" and defended the state's status as the first-in-the nation primary.
"I have never been more worried about the early primary states than I am today," he said, adding that it's "a problem not only for New Hampshire but for democracy. I will not accept that I'm an undercard candidate. I will not buy that construct."
Cruz and Santorum also staunchly defended the New Hampshire's role in choosing a president.
"You know, there are voices in Washington that are arguing for getting rid of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation status," Cruz said. "I think that is absolute lunacy." He stood in awe at how "real and personal" the state's voters take their responsibility, marveling that, "you all treat politics like we treat football in Texas."
"Iowa and New Hampshire should be the ones that set the field," Santorum added. "And right now they're not. The media's setting the field by the debate structure and the number of debates and that's the RNC's fault, and then the debate structure, which is a combination of the RNC and the media's fault. I think it's been a debacle."
One of the other characters who showed to the Secretary of State's office Thursday was little-known Republican presidential candidate Andy Martin, who brought in a challenge to Bernie Sanders' spot on the state's Democratic primary ballot, charging that Sanders should not be on the ballot due to his history as an independent. The New York Times once described Martin as "a man with a history of scintillating if not always factual claims" who "is widely credited with starting the cyberwhisper campaign" falsely claiming President Obama is a Muslim.
To file for the New Hampshire primary, a candidate must be a registered Republican or Democrat. When Sanders, the long-time independent Senator from Vermont, filed for the primary last week, he asserted that he considers himself a Democrat now, a statement backed up by the New Hampshire and Vermont Democratic Party chairmen. Sanders filed for the primary without incident, though it's up to the New Hampshire Ballot Law Commission to review any ballot challenges against all of the candidates.
Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire State Director defended Sanders from the ballot challenge, writing on Twitter, "We prepared for a competitive race from day one, GOP attempts to remove Bernie Sanders from the ballot are wrong & bad for NH's primary."