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New Hampshire fear: Trump success means the death of retail politics

A handmade sign follows Ohio Gov. John Kasich, tallying his time in New Hampshire in red and blue paint. Chris Christie’s wife knows the number of questions he’s answered at town halls, one of them about bobcats. Before he dropped out, Lindsey Graham followed the model of his good friend and two-time primary winner John McCain and met with voters nearly 200 times.

The Republican front-runner, though, has eschewed these intimate rituals of presidential politicking in New Hampshire for a far different pitch.

“I don’t even think I have to campaign anymore. Why am I even wasting my time?” Donald Trump said recently in Nashua to a crowd that was massive by retail campaigning standards. “I can leave here right now; they’re going to vote for me.”

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As the state celebrates the 100th anniversary of its presidential primary, Trump’s bravado has given rise to an uncomfortable argument here: that New Hampshire itself has as much to lose as any of the candidates, should his double-digit lead hold until the Tuesday primary.

Such an outcome would strike at the heart of the state’s claim to first-in-the-nation status, as a presidential proving ground where celebrity and a sizable campaign war chest matter far less than candidates’ willingness to subject themselves to the rigorous scrutiny that voters here see as their birthright.

For months, prominent New Hampshire politicos have scratched their heads as poll after poll showed not only Trump in the lead, but Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another Republican hopeful who has only occasionally visited, right behind him.

“If a candidate can come in and win because he’s a celebrity with huge name recognition and deep pockets, and he doesn’t do any traditional retail … then you undermine not just the parties’ justification for scheduling New Hampshire first, you undermine the candidates’ motivation for coming here,” said Drew Cline, the former editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester’s main daily newspaper and traditionally a force in swaying public sentiment here.

“When you lose the ability to attract those other candidates here, part of what made New Hampshire unique and special and attractive is undermined,” Cline added.

Kasich and Christie are perhaps counting the most on a strong showing here in order to vault their candidacies into the top tier and have followed the traditional New Hampshire playbook. A tally maintained by New England Cable News network showed that Kasich had held 180 campaign stops overall, just ahead of Christie’s 176.

“Whether I win or not, I believe in this process,” John Kasich said. “I believe that folks in New Hampshire are the best screeners America can have to recommend to the country.”

Trump has held only 39 events in 30 trips to the state. And while most candidates arrived in New Hampshire from the Iowa caucuses with busy schedules through primary day, Trump originally planned to stop in only briefly -- with just five scheduled events here before votes are cast Tuesday.

In what would be one of the last 174 events he held here before dropping out of the race last December, Graham bluntly warned voters about Trump.

“Don’t reward him,” he said, noting that the billionaire hadn’t even spent a single night in the state.

Former New Hampshire Rep. Dick Swett, a Democrat who supports Hillary Clinton, said he has observed the process changing here with every cycle, as national trends increasingly influence campaigns.

“But I still believe that you get a better look at all of the candidates because of the process that we represent, that we offer here in New Hampshire,” he said. “And if you take that out, then you’ve really given in to reality television, celebrity, big money. And it will change much, much more rapidly.”

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Clinton, who trails Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by double digits here, according to public polling, has signaled that she will push aggressively to narrow the gap, relying on what she called residents’ insistence on giving candidates “the once-over, twice-over, thrice-over.”

On Wednesday, she dismissed pundits’ advice that she pass on what could prove to be a futile New Hampshire campaign.

“I just could not ever skip New Hampshire,” she said in Derry. “I cannot even imagine not being here, not being in settings like this.”

Sanders, meanwhile canceled his only public event Wednesday in preparation for two nationally televised prime-time forums.

Tom Rath, a former state attorney general and long-time Republican power broker here, noted that New Hampshire has faced a number of threats to its preeminent status but argued for its importance.

“There needs to be a time when the person who would be president answers questions directly from a human being,” he said. “And until that can be replicated someplace else, there will be a place for this.”

Though Rath is leading Kasich’s campaign, he said that if Trump were to win, it would simply reflect that many of the concerns that fueled Trump nationally are relevant here.

“The vitality of this is determined not so much by who wins but by how involved the electorate is,” he said. “If Trump were to win here and we were to turn out 75% of our voters, that tells you something.”

But, he added: “I’m not sure there’s going to be a Trump in every election. And I’m not sure he’s going to win.”

For more campaign coverage, follow @mikememoli

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