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Primary school (Continued)

BY SETH GITELL

Chemistry with voters. New Hampshire secretary of state William Gardner and former governor Hugh Gregg — two politicians who know as much about the New Hampshire presidential primary as anyone in the world — sit across from me in a booth at the Barley House Tavern, in Concord. The tavern, located across from the State Capitol Building, is a political hangout. Gregg, who is the father of US Senator Judd Gregg, was a governor back when Michigan governor George Romney, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s father, was still in the private sector. Clad in a gray houndstooth suit with a red tie, the dapper, 85-year-old Gregg is still as involved as ever in state politics. Interestingly, neither Gardner nor Gregg wants to talk much about demographics, ideology, or field organizations. For them, the personal connection a candidate can — or can’t — make with the voters is what matters.

"The guy who gets out and shakes the most hands in the street is the guy who’s going to win in New Hampshire," says Gregg, a one-time supporter of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, to whom he refers as "Rocky." "If you’re not going to get out in their living room and tell them how nice they are, you’re not going to win in New Hampshire."

To say that New Hampshire voters expect this is an understatement. Everyone interested in the New Hampshire–primary game likes to tell the story, probably apocryphal, of the New Hampshire voter who is asked by a reporter whom he’ll be voting for, and answers: "I don’t know. I’ve only met each one twice." Buckley told me that his mother has already rejected a certain 2004 candidate — he won’t say which one — because the candidate got too close to her personal space. The acuity of the average New Hampshire voter was further driven home to me at the Merrimack Restaurant in downtown Manchester. After a quick meal with a political operative, I was interrupted by a couple who overheard part of our conversation, which focused on the upcoming Democratic presidential-primary fight. Call me classist, but to my mind, neither the man nor the woman looked like the kind of civic geek who would even know a presidential primary was taking place next year, much less who was running. The man wore his hair mullet-style and had a narrow mustache above his lip; the woman had a purple hockey shirt draped over her frame. But this was New Hampshire, and they had an opinion. "You know what I think would make a great ticket," the man said. "Kerry-Gephardt."

For many, the presidential-primary candidate who best capitalized on the importance of the personal touch in New Hampshire was Jimmy Carter, who was a little-known governor of Georgia when he won the Granite State primary. Gardner remembers first seeing Carter sitting alone in the New Hampshire State House cafeteria months before the primary. Carter had been haunting the State House in an effort to meet and recruit legislators for his presidential campaign. Nobody could believe Carter was actually the governor of a state. But the under-financed dark horse practiced an innovative form of retail politics: he stayed with more than 70 New Hampshire families as he canvassed the state. (The year after he won, he invited those families to visit him at the White House.) Arizona senator John McCain performed similar magic during the 2000 election cycle, when he participated in more than 100 "town meetings" and stayed long after they ended to answer questions from townsfolk.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean is actively cultivating comparisons between his campaign and the standard set by Carter and McCain. When I met with him in December, Dean went out of his way to liken his candidacy as a small-state governor to Carter’s (see "Howard's End Run," News and Features, December 20, 2002). For what it’s worth, both Gardner and Gregg cite a "prognosticator" — they refuse to reveal his name — who always accurately predicts the winner of the New Hampshire primary in the same folksy way that The Old Farmer’s Almanac forecasts weather. This mystery man says that Dean is on the path to victory. "This is a guy who for all my years has always told me who’s going to win," says Gardner. "All he watches is how [the candidate] personally interacts with people at events." For example, the "prognosticator" watches the way New Hampshire voters react to how a candidate answers questions, rather than how they react to what the candidate actually says. Clinton and McCain could mesmerize voters, according to the "prognosticator." And Dean seems to be similarly skilled.

A caveat: Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis was a better retail politician than people remember today, but he was no McCain-style dynamo. Still, he came away with a New Hampshire victory in 1988. The same can be said of Paul Tsongas in 1992. Personal style can explain some victories — McCain’s in 2000, Carter’s in 1976. But too much can be made of this.

Early edge: Howard Dean. Dean has already been to New Hampshire more than 20 times. His Dr. McCoy–esque "I’m a doctor, not a politician" refrain is beginning to resonate with some New Hampshire voters.

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Issue Date: February 6 - 13, 2003
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