Primary colors

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Amoskeag Strummers had their banjos in hand, the Shriners were standing by their little red cars and the parade was about to begin. Then, across the lawn and into this classic New England small-town scene strode a tall, slim, implausibly handsome and commanding 60-year-old man. A leader, or a Brooks Brothers model. But wait. From another direction strode another man, also tall, also slim, also implausibly handsome. This one was 46 years old, maybe more Benetton than Brooks Brothers, just as commanding. The two converged in a manly embrace -- Mitt Romney, former Republican governor of Massachusetts, and Barack Obama, Democrat senator from Illinois, both chasing the presidency, both surrounded by the Milford High School fife-and-drum corps, a few reporters and me, the uncredentialed tourist. I stepped up, shook Romney’s hand and wished him luck. “Well, thank you,” he said. “I’ll need that.” To Obama I only nodded, because I’d already shaken his hand, wished him luck and met his wife, Michelle, the day before. He seemed to understand.

In fact, in four days of racing around southern New Hampshire in early September with no press pass or campaign connections, I shook the hands of eight presidential candidates -- an orgy of access that in California would have taken weeks and cost a fortune in campaign contributions.

Apart from the usual transportation, lodging and meal expenses, $50 for a floor seat at a Republican debate and $40 for a barbecue that was supposed to include U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), it cost me nothing. Between events, there was time for meatloaf at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, a stroll under the turning leaves and tall church steeple in the town of Amherst; and a seaside lobster roll lunch at Harpoon Willy’s in Portsmouth. And I haven’t even begun to tell you what I learned about Social Security “regressivity.”

It’s easy to forget, given the way candidates raise money behind closed doors in Southern California, that any American can step into the middle of all this patriotism, pandering, drama, debate, stagecraft and statecraft. But we can, and the show runs in New Hampshire for the next three or four months, depending on the primary election date that the state chooses.

In fact, hundreds of political amateurs and tourists join this ritual every four years, sometimes as campaign volunteers, sometimes as uncommitted voters shopping for a favorite, sometimes as simple gawkers impersonating New Hampshire voters.

“It’s amazing to me, the access that the citizens of New Hampshire have to candidates,” Princella Smith told me in Durham one day. Smith, a 23-year consultant who was raised in Arkansas and works for a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, had just driven eight hours from Washington and booked a room at the Hickory Pond Inn, all so she could volunteer a few days for Mike Huckabee, her former Republican governor.

Later the same day, I met Nancy Grimes, an executive whose business is based in Santa Barbara. Though Grimes had spent plenty of time in New England, she told me, she didn’t dip her toe into campaign events until a 2000 rally for U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Portsmouth.

It was a bone-cold day, but that, she recalled, “was the first time that I’ve ever felt what it’s like to really become part of the democratic process.”

During the busiest weeks of the 2004 primary, recalled Darlene Johnston, co-owner of the Ash Street Inn in Manchester, “we had investment bankers from Seattle, attorneys from Philadelphia and schoolteachers from New Jersey, all working on different campaigns. And a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. It was very interesting at breakfast.”

My wife, Mary Frances, and I made our handshaking debut that same season. In the space of a long weekend of dashing town to town with a handful of friends, we caught half a dozen candidates -- all Democrats, since President Bush had no serious Republican challengers. In the bargain, we rubbed elbows with U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and such media stars as Al Franken, Dave Barry and Chris Matthews. Like Grimes’ introduction in 2000, it was very cold but great fun.

And this time around, the New Hampshire primary buzz sounds more loudly than ever for political junkies, for a couple of reasons.

First, this is the first presidential race with no incumbent president or vice president involved since 1928, so the towns and countryside are teeming with hopeful Democrat and Republican candidates. Second, the tradition of face-to-face “retail politics” in the run-up to New Hampshire’s state-sponsored primaries and Iowa’s party-sponsored caucuses may soon be obliterated by demands for simultaneous campaigning in multiple states.

Of course, you could argue that the system deserves obliteration, because it gives disproportionate power to two overwhelmingly white states whose populations amount to fewer than 5 million people. But since 1952, New Hampshire has been a crucial proving ground, where Edmund Muskie’s campaign stalled after his enraged and perhaps tearful outburst at a “gutless” newspaper publisher (1972, in front of the Manchester Union-Leader building); where Jimmy Carter’s surprise win put him on the path to the White House (1976); where Ronald Reagan ignored the agreed-upon rules of a debate but won the public-relations battle with the one-liner, “I paid for this microphone” (1980, in the Nashua High School gym); where Bill Clinton pronounced himself “the comeback kid” after withstanding revelations about his relationship with Gennifer Flowers (1992).

At least for now, running for president still means shaking hands and romancing voters in New Hampshire until your voice fails and your fingers go numb. And following the candidates means never standing still for long.

TIME FOR HANDSHAKESI started with an AFL-CIO Labor Day breakfast in Manchester -- a high school gym full of long tables, the tabletops covered with labor literature and orange juice in plastic cups. Glimpsing a half-familiar head of snowy white hair atop a blue blazer, I edged into the crowd and reached out a hand like a fisherman dropping a line. On the other end: Dodd, the Connecticut senator, eager to chat about the great weather and his commitment to organized labor.

At that point, I’d been in the gym for five minutes. Before 30 more minutes had passed, Obama had tiptoed in, blazer-less and tie-less, to quietly work the tables while other speakers took their turns at the microphone. I sidled up, gave appropriate space and respect to the Secret Service guys, grinned and gripped, and then snapped pictures.

Then I lingered awhile to hear the senators speak and check out their flesh-pressing technique. When another speaker mentioned his 36 years of union membership, Dodd stood to clap, causing the rest of the room to rise with him. When Obama was greeting a familiar face, he would offer a conventional handshake but apply a little English, like a bowler throwing a curve.

“We aren’t here to win an election. We’re here to transform a nation,” Obama proclaimed an hour and a half later, having joined his family and donned a new shirt and tie for a rally in a Manchester public park. As he leaned into the crowd afterward, one supporter thrust a CD into his hands.

“Tunes,” said the supporter.

“What?” said Obama.

“Tunes!” hollered the supporter amid the din.

“Ah. Thanks,” said Obama, pocketing the CD and moving on down the line.

Inevitably, I missed some candidates, including the Democrats’ front-runner and a notable late-starting Republican: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) flew out of the Manchester airport a few hours before I flew in, and the just-declared Fred Thompson (a Republican and formerly Tennessee senator) arrived about the time I was leaving. (No doubt they’ll both be back often. The campaign blog reports that Clinton has already visited New Hampshire at least 15 times this year and that Democrat and GOP candidates together have paid more than 150 visits.)

Anyway, I’m not losing sleep over hands unshaken. My idea in going to New Hampshire was not to follow any individual but to browse and soak up the scene. Though I happened to see enough of Romney to know he likes to guess kids’ ages -- and enough of McCain to see that even when his staff is in disarray and his coffers are nearly empty, he rarely resists a chance to tell a joke -- much of the fun comes from encounters with less-celebrated candidates. Dodd, for instance, or Sam Brownback, a Republican farmer’s son and senator from Kansas.

And so on my second morning in the state, I found my way to Bonhoeffer’s Cafe & Espresso in Nashua for a talk sponsored by the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The subject was to be Social Security. There were about a dozen of us in the cafe, including Laura Morales, a 20-year-old junior from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

She had arrived at 11 the night before, and for the next week she would be dashing from event to event in an “ostrichmobile” as a volunteer for Students for Saving Social Security. At some point in this assignment, she knew, she might be obliged to wear the ostrich suit, but just then she was grinning like a fox in a factory-farm henhouse: Twelve hours in town, and here she was with “a chance to sit down with a senator.”

Joe Elcock, communications director for AARP’s effort to encourage discussion of healthcare issue, was less impressed. “Any of these guys will come to your living room if you invite them,” he said.

Then it was time for Brownback to speak. Taking the microphone and standing before a brick wall, he began by thoughtfully pointing out that Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a theologian and enemy of Hitler) and Thomas More (a Catholic saint and enemy of Henry VIII) both were killed for their values.

“I’m not offering my head, but I like the company I’m keeping,” Brownback said. A moment later, as he continued, the tape gave way on the campaign sign behind him, and the cardboard suddenly dropped to the floor -- just, it seemed to me, like a falling guillotine blade. Brownback looked at the sign, looked at the audience, looked at the pair of video cameras trained on him.

“I hope,” he said, “you didn’t get that on camera.”

REAL DEBATEThe next day I walked into a far different setting -- the Republican debate, with eight candidates, a trio of questioners from Fox News and an arena full of voters. The event began with a reception and long wait outside on the University of New Hampshire campus, with plenty of time to read the signs of war-protesters and death-tax enemies; to admire the ingenuity of Ron Paul’s backers, who chalked the Texas congressman’s name onto just about every concrete step and sidewalk panel between the parking lot and the arena; and to engage in a one-sided conversation with the man-sized duck bearing a sign mocking Thompson for avoiding the event. (The duck clammed up.)

“Look friendly. That’s the main thing,” I heard an organizer tell a circle of Romney supporters.

“It’s amazing how naive people are,” one of the Paul people muttered, passing a demonstrator backing somebody else.

I landed in a sixth-row-center seat, about 40 feet from the stage. U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, sounded ferociously, high-blood-pressure angry about illegal immigration. Duncan Hunter, a GOP congressman from San Diego County, sounded serene and confident about our military options in Iraq. Republican Rudy Giuliani sounded streetwise and very, very proud of his years of fighting crime as New York’s mayor. Paul, the lone Republican candidate calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, seemed incredulous that his rivals couldn’t see how right he was.

More than once, in fact, Paul’s many young backers in the arena roared their opposition to the war, and the rest of the arena roared right back in opprobrium. Such fierce dissension in the same party -- it was like listening to Democrats.

And it was a good night for handshakes. At the debate’s conclusion, the audience surged toward the stage, and I needed only to reach up to shake Paul’s hand. Giuliani had disappeared, probably into the post-debate interview area they call “the spin room,” but there was Huckabee’s hand. There was Romney’s too, but I’d covered that base already, so instead I politely called out to Hunter across the stage and he obligingly stepped right over.

FAVORITE EVENTHave I decided who gets my vote?

Of course not. Even though other states keep moving up their primaries and fund-raising is through the roof, it’s still more than a year until the election.

But I do have a favorite New Hampshire campaign event. It was a town meeting led by McCain in the fire station of Bow, a tiny town outside Concord. There were about 150 of us in folding chairs, the fire trucks parked outside to make room for us.

Waiting for the event to begin, I got to talking with Mike Barlow, who lives about a mile away and hadn’t been to one of these events in years. Next to him sat the reason he had come: his cousin Kay Barlow. She was visiting from Omaha, where she’s a government employee, and she was determined to get in on the action. The Barlows took seats next to me in the front row.

“I’ve never done anything like this,” said Kay Barlow, a registered Democrat for years. But with this election, Barlow said, she feels a new urgency and uncertainty.

“I’m waiting to really believe in someone. Right now, I don’t. And I’ve made the decision to not necessarily follow my party, for the first time.”

Onstage, McCain told the crowd of 100 or so that “this is what democracy in America should be all about. . . . The people of New Hampshire understand their responsibilities. They examine their candidates.” He talked at length about Iraq, he told jokes, he moved easily from issue to issue -- this is, after all, the man who staged 114 town meetings and won the 2000 Republican primary here, before George W. Bush gained the upper hand in South Carolina.

“We spent 3 million of your dollars last year to study the DNA of bears in Montana,” said McCain. “I don’t know if it was a criminal issue or a paternity issue, but it was $3 million of your money.”

Kay Barlow raised her hand.

“Could you talk please about illegal immigration?” she asked. As she and probably everyone there knew, McCain has taken a beating from many conservatives over his support for a proposal that would have tightened border security while clearing a path to citizenship for immigrants already here illegally. Reminded of the now-dead bill, the Arizona senator fixed his gaze on Barlow and said, “I heard you.”

He’d gotten the message, he said, that after Iraq and Katrina and the failure of the last immigration-reform attempt, many Americans don’t much trust their government to hold the line on immigration. McCain said now he realizes that we need to better secure the borders before we start talking about legalizing any of the 12 million illegal immigrants already here.

“I appreciated that he looked me in the eye and said ‘I heard you,’ ” Barlow wrote later in an e-mail. Then again, she added, “He’s a smart man and I’m sure he knows he’s toast if he doesn’t promise to do what the majority wants.”

After the meeting, Barlow found her way to McCain’s side to pose for a photo: the candidate from Arizona and rank-and-file Nebraska voter, side by side in a New England firehouse. The moment called for Norman Rockwell, but Barlow had to settle for me and my Nikon.

“There’s no substitute for the face-to-face time you spend in an election year,” Romney had said in Durham. He was talking about candidates, but it goes for voters too.