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After Iowa, all eyes turn to New Hampshire

Now it’s New Hampshire’s turn to pick a president.

And Iowa aside, the good folks of the Granite State would like you to know they have some fairly independent views on the subject and a prickly history of boosting insurgents and humbling front runners.

So come on up, the weather’s fine – if your idea of fun is frostbite and a gymnasium filled with clear-eyed contrarians experienced at taking the measure of presidential candidates up close and personal.

“I had the opportunity to pose this question to Sen. Lieberman about an hour and a half ago … ” a man said last week to retired Gen. Wesley Clark at a town hall meeting in Merrimack, N.H.

Clark stood inside a circle of New Hampshire voters like a martyr at the Coliseum, tugging at his blue sweater, listening intently. Clearly, these folks were practicing realpolitik in real time.

The question was about winnability. That’s the big issue here before the Jan. 27 primary. Democrats want somebody who has the stuff to beat George W. Bush.

“It’s time to send George Bush back to Crawford to take care of his ponies,” said Larry Williams, a 62-year-old Navy veteran with more than a touch of New England in his voice.

Clark says his military experience makes him a winner. Sen. John Kerry says the same. Sen. Joe Lieberman says he’s the centrist in the field, the best to lure swing voters. Rep. Dick Gephardt pitches himself as a real Democrat. And former Gov. Howard Dean of neighboring Vermont is, he reminds everybody, a political outsider.

Until now, Clark and Lieberman have had New Hampshire much to themselves. They skipped Iowa and in the case of the ex-general, it seems to have paid dividends.

The former NATO commander is running a close second, trimming Dean’s once-vaunted 25-point lead and powering ahead of the region’s other favorite son, Kerry.

“Wesley Clark is definitely making a move in New Hampshire,” said Eric Davis, a political scientist at Middlebury College in neighboring Vermont. “Clark’s message seems to be not so much about policy, as about his resume: I’m a leader, I’ve demonstrated the issue of leadership all those years in the military. I have the foreign policy credentials. And that’s what the country needs right now.”

But the history of New Hampshire is a history of upsets and brutal surprise.

So now that everybody’s coming, listen up, candidates. Here’s what you need to know:

First thing to remember:

The volatile voters here love to beat the front-runner. Gary Hart parlayed a better-than-expected second-place finish in Iowa to win here in 1984. Pat Buchanan led his rowdy pitchfork army to victory in 1996. And, just four years ago, GOP front-runner George W. Bush got his comeuppance, losing to insurgent John McCain’s Straight Talk Express.

Second: Independents count.

There are nearly 700,000 registered voters in New Hampshire, and the biggest portion – 260,000 – are registered as “undeclared.” State law allows same-day voter registration, which makes independents a very fluid group more likely to show up in big numbers on the Democratic side this year since President Bush isn’t facing serious opposition.

Third: Finishing third is for losers.

No candidate in the last 50 years has finished lower than second in New Hampshire and won his party’s nomination.

“We take this very seriously,” said Louise LeCompte, who joined hundreds of her neighbors in a jammed gymnasium last Saturday at Clark rally in Pembroke, N.H.

Like so many active citizens in New Hampshire, LeCompte expects to see her candidates close up, to look them in the eye, to get a feel not only for their policies but also their personality.

She said Clark passed the test. By comparison, she recalls how former Republican Vice President Dan Quayle flunked a few years ago when she sought to take his measure.

“He shakes your hand but just looks beyond you,” she said of Quayle.

“This man,” she said, pointing to Clark, “doesn’t do that.”

It’s grass-roots politics here, even if the grass roots are covered by snow. So be prepared to shake hands and look the savvy folks of New Hampshire directly in the eye.

Some candidates say those voters ask too much. “These are people who expect candidates to grovel. Texans have many skills. Groveling is not one of them,” said one-time presidential hopeful Phil Gramm, former Texas senator.

Even finishing first is no guarantee of success. John McCain won in 2000, Paul Tsongas won in 1992, and neither got his party’s nomination.

But weathering the rigorous, unpredictable politics of the place with a good showing – Bill Clinton as the “Comeback Kid” finishing second in 1992, Ronald Reagan in 1980 – can help put you in the White House.