Would-Be Presidents Swarm Into N.H. : Candidates, Media Make Quadrennial Pilgrimage

Times Staff Writer

When Rosalynn Carter came to town to stump for husband Jimmy's ill-fated 1980 reelection bid, local Democratic bigwig Harry Spanos clutched a bouquet as he led the official greeting party.

Mrs. Carter's limousine pulled up as expected in front of the Sugar River Savings Bank where Spanos was standing. And then the strangest thing happened.


Spanos waited dutifully at the curb, but nobody got out of the car. The fresh-cut flowers began to wilt in his arms, but still the First Lady did not budge.

For a good 10 minutes, the awkward standoff continued. Then a tardy bus lumbered up and disgorged its contents--the traveling press corps. Rumpled reporters, haggard photographers and beefy television technicians poured out in a tangled heap, tripping over a spaghetti-like maze of minicam cables as they elbowed for prime position to witness the less-than-natural event about to unfold.

Finally, someone appearing to be from the official party but apart from the official mob shouted: "Let her out!" The door swung open and Mrs. Carter emerged into the crisp New England air to accept Spanos' gracious offering while cameras whirred and scribes scribbled.

Spontaneous it is not. The New Hampshire presidential primary it is. As sure as swallows return to Capistrano each year and locusts come back every 17, White House hopefuls and the media organisms that cling to them make a quadrennial pilgrimage to the Granite State for months of marathon campaigning.

The real lure is the calendar. Tiny New Hampshire--statistically insignificant, with 1% or less of nominating convention and Electoral College votes--rates its outsized attention in the presidential sweepstakes simply because it has long been the first state to hold a full-blown primary.

No one votes here until Feb. 16, 1988, but already the place is swarming with candidates. At least a dozen would-be presidents--as well as wives, children, siblings, friends and devotees of all stripes--have clocked countless hours on the campaign trail here, recruiting staffs, attending teas, speaking to Elks clubs, donning funny hats and T-shirts, pressing flesh and outlining promises and platforms likely to melt away with the 1988 post-primary spring thaw.

Roster of Politicians

Local political pundits are fond of noting that virtually all postwar presidents started down the road toward Washington by first winning their party's primary election here. Others like to recite the roster of politicians whose presidential ambitions were either made or crushed by surprise New Hampshire showings--Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and possibly Gary Hart on the plus side, Edmund S. Muskie and Lyndon B. Johnson on the minus side.

Perhaps helped along by this local pride, the mystique grows, luring the combatants into the fray earlier and earlier each election cycle, whether they have much to campaign about or not.

When Republicans recently held their first candidates' forum of the season--a full 11 months before the polls open here--they drew major contenders and dozens of journalists from around the country. The hottest topic of the two-day session: a spat over which of seven men vying to be leader of the Free World would get to speak at a lunch. Vice President George Bush won the honors.

Not long ago, GOP hopeful Alexander M. Haig Jr.--never known for intentional wackiness during his varied and controversial career as a military leader and diplomat--appeared at a rally in his honor along with a trio of supporters identified in campaign material only as Fuzzy the Kop, Happy the Clown and Uncle Sam on Stilts. Sidling up to the candidate, the orange-tousled, red-nosed Happy proudly sported two large campaign buttons on his shiny green blouse that may or may not have betrayed some ambivalence. One read simply: "Haig." The other declared: "I'm with stupid."

Steeled by years of such hoopla, New Hampshirites seem unfazed by it. "Street corners, shopping centers, factory gates, college campuses. Pretty soon they'll be everywhere," said lawyer David Mulhern as he ambled through the Haig rally in a Manchester shopping mall. "Most people here think its their God-given right to meet the candidates. Sometimes it seems like there are more candidates than people."

Here in Newport, an old mill town of 6,000 people 10 miles from the Vermont border, Richard Kelley can easily rattle off the roster of contenders he has personally run across over the years. "Reagan's been here, Kennedy, Bush," said Kelley from behind the counter of the R & L auto parts store he runs. "Jimmy Carter came here and talked for hours. It's exciting that a national political candidate would actually come to Newport, N.H. It puts us on the map."

That was precisely the idea back in 1949 when Richard Upton, then the Speaker of the state House, got the Legislature to rewrite the rules of what had been a sleepy political exercise ignored by candidates and press alike.

When state lawmakers originally created the primary--for the 1916 presidential campaign--they first planned to hold it in May. But, in what proved to be a fluke of Yankee economy, they switched the date to coincide with annual early March town meetings, when local residents massed to decide how to run their communities. Under that arrangement, townsfolk chose uncommitted delegates to the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions at the same time they voted on whether to build sewers and erect street lights.

Years later, after the idea of presidential primaries caught fire and other states tried to steal New Hampshire's franchise by scheduling their own early primaries, state leaders forgot about the money saved by combining elections and moved the presidential balloting into February.

The most significant of Upton's changes was the creation of the preference primary--the so-called beauty contest--in which contenders faced each other head-on in what amounted to non-binding party popularity polls. It was the right innovation at the right time, coming just as network television was making its initial splash on the American scene. The 1952 primary, the first played under Upton's rules, also was the first to be covered extensively by television. It became, in effect, the forerunner of the network game show.

Estes Kefauver, a folksy Tennessee senator, set the style for campaigns to come by spending weeks parading around New Hampshire in a coonskin cap. He won the Democratic half of the primary, much to the surprise of the non-campaigning President Harry S. Truman. Truman eventually chose not to run for reelection, but it was Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson who won the party's nod at convention time.

"The changes caused candidates to campaign in New Hampshire for the first time," recalled Upton, 72, now a Concord lawyer. "Before that, who cared about us? They would just ignore us. Now we became important. The media started spending a lot of money here. . . . A small state became able to exercise a lot more political influence than we otherwise would be able to do."

New Hampshire's sway over the political scene is all the more remarkable because this small state (with a population of 1 million) is so unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. Few minorities live here, the state levies no income or sales tax, the public schools are good, crime is not rampant and the jobless rate is about the lowest in the nation as high-tech factories flock to the region.

Officials cite the state's primary election as a factor in the boom. Spending directly associated with the 1984 primary netted New Hampshire businesses about $12 million. Most of that came not from campaigns restricted by federal spending limits but from the press and Secret Service, according to Michael Power, the state's director of tourism. "That's a drop in the bucket compared to our $1 billion a year total tourism business," Power said, "but in the long run it's a great image maker for us."

Hotels Booked Solid

John Burns, head of the New Hampshire Division of Economic Development, argues that the primary "is as important to this state as the Red Sox are to Boston or the Mets to New York."

Manchester's 700 hotel rooms are already booked solid for much of next January and February. Dave Gladieux, manager of the city's largest hotel, the 251-room Holiday Inn, said the television networks, despite the recent austerity wave that has hit the industry, have scooped up blocks of 50 to 70 rooms apiece.

As the election approaches, the impact on hotels, restaurants, bars, taxis, car rental firms, office space, phone lines, printers, caterers and bands-for-hire multiplies. "It's like a moving, growing convention," marvels Thomas Schwieger, president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

Based on past experience, residents say that by summer it will be hard to visit a Manchester area factory gate in the morning or a bowling alley at night without bumping into some candidate or his surrogate. They will turn up at socials and fish fries on Saturday night and flock to diners on Sunday morning. Every candidate can be expected to make a ritual trek to the annual fireman's ball next August at the Canobie Lake Park Ballroom near Salem where they will crisscross each other in the room to shake hands.

"We'll go out on Sunday morning and go to church and see one," said state Republican Chairwoman Elsie Vartanian. "We'll go shopping and see one. We'll take the kids to the movies and see one."

On Election Day in 1972, Democrat George S. McGovern approached a woman outside a polling place in Manchester and introduced himself. "My name is George McGovern," the senator from South Dakota said. "I know, we met three times," the woman replied. "I realize that," McGovern shot back. "Eleanor (his wife) thinks there's something going on between us."

Even professionals acknowledge that the campaign process seems to be getting a bit out of hand here. "Parts of it are a little absurd," admitted Scott Kirby, administrative assistant to the Democratic leadership in the New Hampshire House. "There are a lot of things that get done for the benefit of national TV that don't reflect what's important here. . . . Seeing Walter Mondale drive three hours to go ice fishing and freeze his butt off to catch a three-incher--it's ridiculous."

Still, many residents admit that they get a thrill out of all the attention. "You get to know 'em, you get to meet 'em, you get to talk to 'em," said restaurant equipment salesman Peter Anastos as he sipped coffee recently at Newport's Corner Coffee shop off the town square. " . . . They think they're important, and they're coming to see us so that means we must be important."

Jeannette Couture, a 75-year-old Manchester widow, agreed. "It gives a chance for us people to know what's going on. If you read it in the papers you never know if it's true. This way we get to hear it from their own mouth."

Couture was one of a group of senior citizens recruited to attend a rally for Democrat Bruce Babbitt.

"Would you go for him?" Couture was asked after listening to the former Arizona governor outline his plans for the nation. "I would if he was single," she replied, possibly misunderstanding the question.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World