Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Presidential Candidates, Small Events in N.H. May Matter More Than Debate

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Presidential Candidates, Small Events in N.H. May Matter More Than Debate

Article excerpt

The GOP presidential candidates debate Tuesday night at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. But the state's signature brand of retail politics favors more-intimate gatherings.

For the first time, all the leading Republican presidential candidates are converging on New Hampshire - first primary state, population 1.3 million - for a debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover on Tuesday evening.

They're already crossing paths in picture-postcard towns honing their skills, or not, in the Granite State's signature brand of retail politics.

What counts here isn't the big event, but rather the face-to- face encounters in diners, living rooms, and town halls.

Other states are clamoring for the first-in-the-nation distinction, and the national attention to local issues that it brings. On Sept. 30, Florida set off a war to be an early primary state when it shifted its primary to Jan. 31. South Carolina shot back with Jan. 21, and Nevada claimed Jan. 14. Now, Iowa is eyeing Jan. 3 for its presidential caucuses.

That leaves New Hampshire in a bind. A 1975 state law requires that New Hampshire maintain its status as the first presidential primary state. New Hampshire is at least a week away from announcing the date of its primary, says William Gardner, the state's secretary of State, but one thing is sure: No one is going to beat New Hampshire, even if it means bumping the date back to the Christmas holidays.

"If Iowa sets its caucuses on Jan. 3, that leaves some options for us, but not a lot," said Mr. Gardner in a phone interview on Monday. "The possibility of going in December exists."

From 1916 until 1972, the New Hampshire primary was always on the second Tuesday in March. But an electrifying 1968 New Hampshire primary forever changed that. A near unknown before he hit New Hampshire, Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D) Minnesota racked up 42 percent against a wartime president of his own party - Lyndon Johnson, whose 49 percent score registered to the public as a defeat. Mr. Johnson withdrew from the race before the next primary. In 1969, the Nevada Legislature proposed holding its primary a week ahead of New Hampshire - and it's been a race to hold first place ever since.

In this New Hampshire primary cycle, the invitation to a "living room" meeting with a candidate is as likely to be a tent in the backyard, with room at the back for press and cameras. But the principles of retail politics here remain the same: Show up, downsize your entourage, answer the questions, and welcome the follow-ups - and if you're not the last one to leave, look as if you wish you could be.

In all, not more than a few thousand people will go to these events, ask the telling question, or personally size up a candidate toe-to-toe. But the small army of press, video cameras, and bloggers that do show up amplify these exchanges - and the state's reputation as something special in presidential politics. …

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