A Blizzard for Ballots: N.H. Primary Heats Up

Steve Sherman is a New Hampshire journalist covering the primary campaigns

Old advice for newcomers to these parts: If you don't know what's going on, vote no. It's a shield for wary residents against political shenanigans until a need is proved. This way the Hula-Hoops of the moment are put into perspective.

Along come all these candidates, including two big-title Republicans and one in-and-out-and-in nationally known Democrat. Campaigning at this time of year means that the candidates stump and stomp through the snow. Blizzards cancel appearances, slippery roads slow the schedules, ice storms bring down telephone wires, cars don't start and tempers do. It's different from Southern California.

The Feb. 16 New Hampshire primary remains the first in the nation, but its impact is now coupled with the Iowa caucus on Feb. 8. The strategy for most candidates is to develop this one-two punch into momentum for the March 8 Super Tuesday primary. The March blockbuster involves 16 primary states (14 in the South) plus three caucus states and could be considered the first national primary.

Democrat Gary Hart, the out-and-inner, zeroes in on New Hampshire because he needs a quick grass-roots campaign, one that can't be seeded in caucus Iowa without an organization. The more than 2,000 Iowa precinct votes are insider ballots requiring a nurtured political structure, in territory where farm issues are important and take time to sow and reap.

People here aren't fond of admitting that the Iowa vote will influence the New Hampshire vote, but the fact of the matter is that pawns will be sacrificed in Iowa, front-runners will advance on the political chessboard and notice will be taken. The notice to some degree will be transferred to the ballot here a week later.

Yet New Hampshire voters zealously defend their input for the overall primary process and keep emphasizing to themselves, and report on themselves, that their primary state offers the first vote of the people at large, not of political functionaries. So much play by the national press has been given the Iowa caucus this time around that the distinct roles of the two states have been blurred. New Hampshire citizens are annoyed that Iowa hasn't stolen the thunder so much as been given it.

Elsie Vartania, Republican state chairwoman, put it this way: "A caucus state doesn't have the relevancy or the credibility a primary state does. When you get people out to vote, that's another ball game from a bunch of people standing around in a corner of someone's living room counting noses, when they're not even going to be the same delegates down the road. I find the primary process so much more valid and much more committed."

J. Joseph Grandmaison, Democratic state chairman, said: "I'm of that old-fashioned school of thought that the voters are the ones who are supposed to decide. If Hart is successful, then what it means is that X percent of the voters agree with Gary Hart that he is the most qualified Democrat candidate for President of those they have to choose from."

At this point, the chances that this will be the case are about the same as starting a fire from a wet blanket. Hart's re-entry week is long gone, the flurry of fantasies unsustainable and time marches on. What remains is the Feb. 16 voting day and the 38 other hopefuls who have paid their $1,000 filing fees for the New Hampshire primary (27 Democrats, 12 Republicans).

Because of the big numbers and the bad weather and the scores of living-room appearances that candidates must go through, the disgruntlement factor always rises in these final weeks of the primary. It takes granite grit to keep going and this little-state race is merely the beginning. Not only are candidates chilled by the plight of New Hampshire in deep dark January, the press suffers, too. Sometimes the media issue reports on the displeasure of candidates and pundits in dealing face-to-face with ordinary regular American people selecting their President. Too bad. Much of the rest of the country may wish to eliminate this vexing in-person campaigning in favor of rehearsed proclamations on the TV screen. Not here.

The demand for direct campaigning forces candidates to linger on a subject beyond a two-line position paper, revealing capacity and character. In turn, about 70% of the registered voters of the two major parties vote in the primary, a very high turnout.

While the largest federal budget deficit in history continues to be the central issue for Republicans and Democrats here, environmental issues are drawing widespread interest in the home stretch. New Hampshire reflects major national environmental problems. The Seabrook nuclear power plant, originally estimated to cost $900 million for two reactors, outrages more and more residents as they wind up paying about $5 billion for a one-reactor plant. The Seabrook troubles typify problems for the nuclear industry nationally.

Acid rain, riding the high air currents from the Midwest and Canada, has killed golden ponds and prized forests in this White Mountain state. Toxic waste catastrophes in Salem, a commercial border city, have been among the worst in the country. When the Republicans didn't show for a cross-party debate sponsored by several environmental groups on Nov. 1, the Democrats made hay.

The Republicans, having cried foul at the structure of the debate, are now trying to capture some high ground on environmental issues, even while making their own hay out of Hart's chutzpah.

The hay for the state with the first primary is another matter. Mounting the presidential primary costs New Hampshire $500,000 but it attracts--says Michael Power, director of the Office of Vacation Travel--$10 million-$14 million to the economy. This figure includes the total expenditures by candidates, their staffs, Secret Service, the press (biggest contributors) for accommodations, meals, media advertising, car rentals, laundry and communication systems.

On the other hand, a good ski weekend brings in about $10 million to an annual $1.5-billion tourist industry. "So it's not so great," Power added, "but the primary does provide long-term exposure of the state."

An estimated 2,000 newspaper, radio, and TV personnel are expected for the final seven days of the race. The spectacle reaches fever pitch as phase one of the national primary industry ends with a couple of historic--or not so historic--choices.

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