It’s primary day in New Hampshire! As he did in Iowa, Bert Johnson has spent some time on the ground in the Granite State, soaking and poking. Here’s his report:
“When you drive into New Hampshire the atmosphere is very different from that of Iowa. For one thing, the Granite State was obviously more of a challenge to highway engineers – Iowa is so flat that laying out a road system seems to have required only a ruler and a pencil. New Hampshire’s mountains, rivers and forests present significant design obstacles, and make driving between campaign events much less monotonous. On the weekend before the New Hampshire primary, the campaigning taking place is also quite distinct from the campaigning for the Iowa caucuses. As you cross the border it is immediately clear that the primary is engaging a larger percentage of the population than the caucuses were. Signs are everywhere – at intersections, in yards, and on highway overpasses. All the campaigns have signs, but if the election were decided based on a sign count, the winner would be Ron Paul. His signs are all over the place, in all different shapes and sizes. There are even Ron Paul signs without Ron Paul’s name on them. (“Liberty: Too Big to Fail.” The fact that this is obviously a Ron Paul sign must be part of the point the campaign is trying to make.)
First on my itinerary is the candidate that I could not have seen in Iowa: Jon Huntsman. His campaign has scheduled a 9am town hall meeting at a senior center in Haverhill. I arrive when the parking lot is about half full, but the campaign already has a volunteer at the door eager to sign me up for their list. Inside we wait in what appears to be the main activity room. There are two artificial Christmas trees and a wicker basket full of peppermints. As befits a senior center, most people present have grey hair. Each time a young person enters I try to guess whether that person is a staffer or a member of the media.
Huntsman walks in and gets a brief introduction from the local chair of his campaign. After a few pleasantries, he turns the floor over to his wife, Mary Kaye. Dressed in a purple sweater and light jeans with a giant belt buckle depicting a longhorn steer, Mrs. Huntsman makes the case for her husband. Focusing on what the campaign clearly believes to be Huntsman’s strengths, she begins by arguing that Huntsman is the most level headed, rational candidate. In fact, she says, the best word to describe him is “honorable.” She then segues into a story about a Utah national guardsman who was killed in Afghanistan while Huntsman was governor, and how Huntsman handled the wrenching task of consoling the widow and children. Mrs. Huntsman is terrific – her presentation is passionate, frank, and genuine. Should *she* be running for president?
When Mr. Huntsman takes the floor he makes the standard politician’s joke about “marrying up,” which gets a laugh, but he’s frankly not as good at being passionate as his wife is. When he tries to get riled up, his voice goes up a register, but it seems as if he’s holding back, restraining himself. When he describes a situation that seems really astounding to him, like the current national debt as a percentage of GDP, or the rising cost of health care, he pauses and says some variation of “What is that about?” It’s like watching an observational stand up comic talk about politics.
Huntsman’s stump speech is nevertheless very polished and clear, and it gets a good reaction from the audience. He lays out his themes of the “twin deficits,” one economic and one having to do with trust. He makes specific proposals in both areas. (Economy: The Simpson-Bowles Plan, reform the tax code, “If you’re too big to fail, you’re too big!” Trust: term limits for members of Congress, ending the practice of lobbying by former representatives and senators.)
Huntsman answers audience questions on “Obamacare,” on why he didn’t campaign in Iowa, and on the Northern Pass power transmission project, which would run new power lines across New Hampshire to connect the New England grid with Hydro Quebec. He ends on a question about religion. Noting the religious diversity in his own family, he jokes “We’re all screwed up!” The audience laughs appreciatively, but what would an audience in, say, South Carolina think about that?
The Huntsman crowd seemed pretty big to me, having just been in Iowa: between 100 and 150, plus media. Certainly nothing to be embarrassed about. I arrive nearly an hour ahead of time for the Santorum event in Hollis, and it’s clear that I need to revise my opinion of what constitutes a big crowd. The event is being held in the historic Lawrence Barn, a 2000-square-foot space that according to its reservation policy “can legally accommodate 130 persons at tables or 278 persons seated theater style.” There are obviously more than 278 people here, and I feel lucky to have secured a spot standing at the rear, near a CSPAN camera.
As people continue to pour in, many of us eye a partial loft near the back, 7 feet off the ground and measuring about 20 feet square. The difficulty is that the loft area has no flooring, and is defined by log crossbeams spaced about three feet apart. Climbing up there looks risky. Naturally, the media takes the lead. Soon half a dozen people with press badges are sitting astride the crossbeams, pleased at their unobstructed view. Bravest among them is Tucker Carlson of FOX News, who actually stands up on two crossbeams – one loafered foot per beam – and convinces someone who appears to be his son to do the same. “This is great!” he exclaims. What agility! No wonder he was on “Dancing with the Stars.”
The crowd becomes so big that nobody else can fit. I spy several people I recognize from the Huntsman event trapped on the outside, and gloat to myself.
Santorum’s ascent has been so sudden that certain of his staff appear bewildered and shocked. A staffer in a sweatshirt who bears a resemblance to the late comedian Chris Farley pleads with us to sign up for volunteer work as we leave after the event. He moves the American flag behind the podium four feet to the right. Then he moves the podium. Then he moves it again. The staff passes around cookies in baskets lined with American flag napkins.
Santorum enters the building a half hour late, in part because he pauses to do a 10-minute “press availability” outside. This is no doubt the venue in which candidates make the most news – the rallies are largely just repeats of the same stump speech. Someone near me expresses surprise that the candidate wants to linger outside when there are more people inside. Of course, by doing the “press avail” Santorum is speaking to the whole state, and, if he makes some real news, to the whole country.
In a wise move, considering New Hampshire’s paucity of social conservatives, Santorum downplays social conservatism in his speech. He reminds voters that with Ronald Reagan, you might not always have agreed with his positions, but you knew he was principled and you knew where he stood. Vote for me for the same reasons, he argues. He focuses on a vision of the United States as bound together by the values in the Constitution, regardless of each individual’s background. In the question-and-answer session, Santorum is quite impressive, reciting facts and figures about Social Security’s solvency from the 1930s until today, for example.
As has been the case at several of Santorum’s events here, he gets several pointed questions about church and state, abortion, and gay rights. In contrast to his debate performances, which can sometimes seem plaintive and defensive, he responds calmly to each question, articulating a rationale for his beliefs rather than spouting dogma. In response to a question about same-sex marriage, for instance, he articulates essentially the Scalia position from Lawrence v. Texas. Santorum’s critics may have underestimated the depth of his understanding of the issues.
Last on my list is Newt Gingrich, a candidate who prides himself on running a “non-traditional campaign.” When I arrive at an event in Manchester I find that Gingrich’s campaign is so non-traditional that it is holding an event billed as a “town meeting” that is in fact a private function not, strictly speaking, open to members of the town. Nor is it open to me, although I give it the old college try. And by that I mean that I argue to the guard that I ought to be allowed in because I teach political science at a college. This does not work.
Undeterred, I drive over to the next Gingrich “town meeting” on the schedule. Same story. As I’m headed to the door, I catch a glimpse of someone on the inside that I recognize from the Santorum rally. Ah, I see – this is my punishment for being so smug to have gotten into that one.
At the end of the driveway are about a dozen Ron Paul volunteers waving signs. I jokingly tell them that since Gingrich wouldn’t let me in, I’m on their side now. They give me applause and a bunch of thumbs up as I pull onto the road for the drive back to Vermont.”