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A bedrock state, a seismic shift
An absolutist on the importance of direct citizen democracy fears that New Hampshire's primary is headed down the road more traveled.
By MIKE PRIDE, Special to the Times
Published December 16, 2007
Within a few minutes of unstrapping his electric guitar after a mellow jam with local musicians, Mike Huckabee is explaining his position on abortion rights. He tells his audience what he means by prolife, how he came to this core belief and how, in a free society, many of his listeners surely hold different views, which he respects.
The audience is a high school assembly two blocks from my house in Concord. Some of the students will cast their first votes in our Jan. 8 presidential primary, but most are under 18 and therefore ineligible. Nevertheless, during the current campaign, 10 candidates have come to speak there.
Welcome to New Hampshire, where the race for the White House is different from the one you see on television. But not as different as it used to be or ought to be.
In 30 years of witnessing and participating in the process in New Hampshire, I have become an absolutist about the importance to American democracy of this ideal: Voters should come face to face with candidates for the highest office in the land.
I grew up in Clearwater and worked as a journalist in Florida for many years. I moved here in 1978 to run the newsroom of the Concord Monitor, the capital city daily, where I am editor. This is my eighth presidential campaign in New Hampshire.
Perhaps one reason I cherish the primary is that I have the zeal of the converted for New Hampshire politics. From the municipal level up, it is exemplary democracy.
If townspeople oppose a tax increase for a new fire truck, they stand up in a crowd of firefighters and their supporters at the once-a-year town meeting and say why. There are 400 state representatives, one for every 3,000 people, and they make $100 a year plus mileage. Anytime you have a beef, you can call yours up. Or, during the campaign season, you can talk to many of them Saturday mornings at the dump. Done right, the job of governor of New Hampshire requires traveling to ribbon-cuttings and parades all around the state and being on a first-name basis with about a third of the population.
On presidential primary day, independent voters may declare a party, vote in that party's primary and change their voting status back to undeclared before leaving the polls. There is also same-day registration. These voter-friendly rules, along with big fields in both parties and no incumbent or heir apparent in this year's race, will probably mean 80 percent turnout next month.
In this political environment, when the presidential candidates begin to arrive here in force, what awaits them is a populace cowed by neither their celebrity nor their aspiration. Sure, there's expectancy and excitement, and idolizers and fawners dominate some crowds. But the real audience is there to see, question, listen and measure. Voters make a direct connection with a potential national leader, and both they and the candidates profit from it.
The threats to this vital connection are many and growing.
The first culprits are my sisters and brothers in the media along with the expanding realm of those who make a living from our country's more or less perpetual campaign. The Internet and 24/7 news have made this a growth industry. Commentators have infinite space and all the time there is to fill.
Each presidential cycle, the media frenzy has grown larger and broader but not necessarily deeper. For the most part, at the expense of voters, the people whose job it is to cover the process seek instead to shape it.
This is not a new phenomenon but a longtime trend. Two factors this year have made things worse: the wide-open presidential campaign and the drive, from the very outset, to make this campaign national.
Let's start with this year's debates. Make that "debates." Long before the first vote has been cast, the organizers of these forums marginalized more than half the presidential candidates. No matter which party's candidates were onstage, most of the serious questions went to the big three at the mid-stage lecterns. The big three were chosen on the basis of how much money they had raised and how they were doing in polls that came out about twice a week.
For months, the polls were based on ... what exactly? People knew Hillary Clinton's name, and they knew Barack Obama was good-looking. They knew Rudy Giuliani was the wounded but resolute face of post-9/11 New York City, and they knew Fred Thompson played on Law and Order and might or might not enter the race. But they had only a passing acquaintance with Bill Richardson and none at all with Huckabee.
The debates could have changed this. Instead, they aped reality television. You know the formula: Score with gotcha challenges and pray for a "You're fired!" moment.
This formula suits the big media's main intention in the early months of a presidential campaign. For reasons that have little to do with who becomes president, they covet - and have indeed usurped from voters - the power to winnow the field.
Yes, Iowa and New Hampshire voters will still have something to say about who goes forward in 2008, but the real first caucus has already been held. From the beginning, the media referred to two-thirds of the candidates as the second tier. The message to voters: You'll be throwing away your vote if you vote for them. Already disadvantaged in the money chase, these candidates were also denied fair coverage.
What drives this piling on? The big media want a two-person race, three at the most. With six or eight or nine candidates, the campaign is difficult and expensive to cover. With two or three, the story line is cleaner, the expense smaller.
You can also see this trend in the kinds of stories the media rise to. For example, even when they personally admire a candidate, as many of them do John McCain, they love a political obituary more.
Last summer, when McCain's supposed juggernaut was exposed as having gone off track and squandered millions of dollars, McCain came to Concord to give a speech about Iraq. He looked haggard, and he read the speech from a teleprompter, but it wasn't this lackluster performance that dominated the news. As soon as lunch ended, the media multitude peppered McCain with questions about his imminent demise.
Iraq, anyone? Immigration? Global warming? No, the question of the day was this: Can McCain possibly last till fall?
McCain's problems were news, and his campaign's implosion was a reflection on his leadership capacity. But those were not the issues the visiting media focused on. Their interest gravitates to the horse race whenever possible. "Who's winning?" is a fascinating question, but six months before the first primary, it was not relevant.
McCain did last till fall, and today he is sprinting across New Hampshire holding forums with voters in town halls, gymnasiums and anywhere else that will seat a crowd. And he's far from alone. Candidates are everywhere.
Of course, it's absurdly early. Voters have to do their candidate shopping along with their Christmas shopping. That's because other states, including Florida, pushed their primaries and caucuses forward and because no authority had the power and wisdom to create a sensible calendar for the nominating process.
In New Hampshire, we see the results of these developments in several ways, none of them good. The candidates have to campaign in several states at once, virtually eliminating the Chris Dodds and Joe Bidens of the world, who don't have the money, celebrity or organization to do it. There will be almost no time - from a Thursday to a Tuesday, as opposed to eight or 15 days in the past - between Iowa and New Hampshire for candidates to recover and voters to take a second look.
This has been an odd campaign for another reason: the star power of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. As early as last February, their events were like rock concerts, attracting thousands of people and hordes of media.
Although both candidates managed to meet with voters in smaller settings during the campaign, they paid a price for their celebrity. One value of the early New Hampshire campaign is the chance to listen, to feed off voters' concerns and to hone a message - a stump speech - over time. Because of his inexperience on the national stage, Obama, in particular, would have benefited from this.
Against difficult odds, some candidates have run effective grass roots campaigns. The two standouts are John Edwards on the Democratic side and Huckabee on the Republican. Edwards has become a fiery, follow-me campaigner with a near-revolutionary populist message. Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, sounds the real voice of the discredited notion of compassionate conservatism.
Edwards and Huckabee are not the only candidates who have been impressive, and New Hampshire will be a high hurdle for them even if they do well in Iowa. But they have succeeded in winning the ear of voters here through energetic face-to-face campaigning.
For months, I worried that the efforts of the political industry to narrow the field and of the other states to minimize the New Hampshire primary would succeed in squeezing the voters out of the process. I even thought this might be the last hurrah for the primary.
As parochial as this concern might seem, I do not claim that only New Hampshire can keep the presidential nominating process from total domination by big states and by television and the Internet. I just think the nation and its leaders are served when presidential candidates have to court informed voters directly in a small state.
As New Hampshire prepares to go to the polls, this human connection is alive and well. Of course, voters here are bombarded with ads, junk mail and phone calls, and these things have an influence. The Iowa result will have an influence, too. But anyone in New Hampshire who really wants to check out a candidate in person doesn't have to go far to do it.
That phony horse race we've been following for months is just about over. The real one is about to begin. Actual voters, grateful for the privilege of living in the first primary state and mindful of their duty to cast informed ballots, will soon speak.
Mike Pride is the editor of the Concord Monitor, New Hampshire's capital daily newspaper, and the co-chairman of the Pulitzer Prize board. He is a graduate of the University of South Florida.