Wednesday, January 09, 2008

New Hampshire's venom fades, but not its urgency


New Hampshire's venom fades, but not its urgency

The Iowa 'bounce', the agenda of the independent voter and what message to send are shaping the election of the next president of the United States


The tiny state of New Hampshire is at the centre of picking the next US president as it has been for more than half a century. Although few are confident what these unpredictable Granite State voters will do in today's primary, a couple of candidates will come out significantly strengthened, a few down if not out, and the rest irrelevant.

Even before Barack Obama's stunning victory in Iowa last week over Hillary Clinton, New Hampshire seemed an ideal venue for him. He is an intelligent, independent insurgent, who has considerable appeal in the state. He is under attack, though any Iowa bounce may immunise him for now.

New Hampshire isn't a hospitable venue for Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who unnerved the Republican Party establishment by winning the Iowa caucuses. Gov Huckabee, however, may have seriously wounded ex-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's prospects.

The history of this American institution and the changing nature of this state are interwoven in the critical decisions that will be made in the hours ahead. From 1952 through 1988, nobody was elected president without first winning the New Hampshire primary. Some of the most fabled lore in American politics stems from the state: the college kids who in 1968 cleaned up their act to stump for Gene McCarthy and drive President Lyndon Johnson from office; Ronald Reagan's remarkable comeback in 1980 to win a smashing victory after getting clobbered in Iowa; and Bill Clinton's equally remarkable feat in 1992, posturing that a second-place finish in New Hampshire was really a win.

Some New Hampshire elections send a message. These included the McCarthy vote _ he actually lost to Johnson, though the size of the anti-war protest rattled the political world _ and Pat Buchanan's strong showing against President George H W Bush in 1992, and Mr Buchanan's 1996 victory. On other occasions, the state's discerning voters calculate who would be the best presidential candidate.

For more than three decades, this first-in-the-nation primary election has followed Iowa's caucuses, where voters publicly express their preferences for candidates. That hasn't diminished New Hampshire's significance.

There has been a debate about whether there's an Iowa bounce, namely if a strong showing in the Midwest affects voters in New Hampshire. The answer: sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

Democrats Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and John Kerry parlayed victories in Iowa to success in New Hampshire. On the other hand, Republicans Reagan and John McCain scored big triumphs in the state after losing badly in Iowa. Things have never been more unpredictable than this year. In 1980, when Reagan rebounded from his Iowa defeat to rout the elder George Bush in New Hampshire, there were five weeks between the contests. From 1984 to 2004, they were separated by eight days, still time enough to allow the winners to register a small blip and opponents to regroup. ''There has been an Iowa bounce, but it hasn't had legs,'' says Tom Rath, a senior figure in New Hampshire's Republican Party and a Romney supporter. ''By the time we voted, the bounce dissipated.'' This year, with only five days between the two contests, no one is sure if there will be a bounce or not.

New Hampshire has its critics, yet, on balance, the state's voters have acted seriously. They've reflected what Jere Daniell, a retired Dartmouth College history professor, describes as the ''ethic of public participation'' that dates back centuries.

During the Revolutionary War, New Hampshire voters four times rejected a proposed state constitution. Prof Daniell laments that this sense of civic participation and pride is eroding: ''New England is losing its cachet; there are people now who are more interested in bungee jumping off satellites than care about white steepled churches or town meetings.''

There are positive changes as well. One is the absence of William Loeb, the late, venomous publisher of the Union Leader in Manchester who for some 30 years was an unavoidable presence. He assailed anyone to the political left of Attila the Hun. President Dwight Eisenhower, in the front-page Loeb invective, was ''Dopey Dwight''. In 1972, Loeb caused Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie to cry, or at least appear to cry, marking the end of his candidacy. In 1980, George H W Bush's momentum, or ''Big Mo'' as he called it, was stalled when Loeb attacked him for being a member of the ''Trilateral Commission''. (It was never certain whether this was a secret worldwide leftist conspiracy or an adult men's club.)

Today, the Union Leader, still New Hampshire's only statewide newspaper, is better, more civil, and less interesting and influential.

The state also has a new economic and social profile. The old textile and mill towns, and the ethnic and rock-ribbed Republican enclaves, have given way to a more prosperous and flourishing high-tech community.

Politically, if the US is divided into red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states, then New Hampshire, once a reliable GOP outpost, is now purple. George W Bush carried the state in the 2000 general election, and John Kerry in 2004, both by only 1%.

One reason is that more than 40% of New Hampshire voters are independents, meaning they're not registered in either party. What makes today's election tough to predict is that these people can vote in either primary.

Prof Daniell, for instance, is an independent who says he still hasn't made up his mind, since he's waiting ''to see where my vote can make the biggest difference''.

Sen Obama and John McCain are battling for those voters, yet on the eve of the primary, both seem in a good position to win. If so, it's likely that once again the road to the White House will have passed through a New Hampshire victory.

Albert R Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News.

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