NEW HAMPSHIRE — Polls consistently show that significant numbers of voters do not choose a candidate until a few days before the election. For the past two years, Democratic presidential candidates have been vying for the backing of local party luminaries, political junkies, and activists, while average citizens merely tolerated the nuisance and spectacle of large entourages, television cameras, and stump speeches. God only knows how many perfectly good lunches in diners across the state have been mucked up by one presidential hopeful or another barging in this past year.
But that all changed this weekend, in a turnaround of Freaky Friday proportions. The campaigns, facing a tightening race, became tense and frazzled as the hour mercilessly approached. Young staffers who have been relentlessly upbeat and perky for months on end are now showing signs of irascibility. Many of these twentysomethings have uprooted their lives in other parts of the country to work for candidates here, and the possibility of losing is like the sword of Damocles dangling over their heads.
Last night, after a bitter cold day of canvassing, about 30 Dean volunteers poured into the restaurant where I was dining. Two were wearing shirts that said, “I think, therefore I am dangerous.” None of them looked happy.
A man at the table next to me began doing an impression of Dean’s post-Iowa speech, earning scowls from the Deanies. When his friend tried to shush him, the imitator said loudly, “I don’t care. Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about Chimp Jagger and his ‘I have a scream’ address.”
THE OUTBURST IS HARDLY an isolated incident in New Hampshire these days. Locals, usually bored out of their minds by the length of the contest, are starting to feel the excitement of the horse race, especially post-Iowa. Ever-larger crowds are turning out for all of the candidates, save Al Sharpton who has been MIA since Thursday’s debate.
That sudden deluge of attention by the public and the media results in a massive flurry of activity and pandering. Desperation fuels moments of absurdity. Consider these oddities from the last three days:
General Wesley Clark made appearances throughout the state with actor Ted Danson of Cheers fame and wife Mary Steenburgen of Arkansas and Friend of Bill fame. Steenburgen most recently appeared in the Will Farrell movie Elf, while Ted Danson has appeared in nothing of significance since he came to Whoopi Goldberg’s Friar Club Roast in blackface makeup. Clark also brought in former New York mayor David Dinkins and Rep. Charlie Rangel.
Still Smarting from Iowa, Howard Dean is traveling the state with his wife and mother. The campaign is distributing 50,000 videocassettes of Diane Sawyer’s interview with Dean and his wife. Campaign aides coo knowingly that this will “soften his image.”
But Dean seems less than comfortable in his nice skin. At a couple events this weekend, he began by explaining what a good boy he was going to be, only to devolve during the Q&A into his old self, explaining that ordinary Iraqis were a “whole lot worse off” now than under Saddam Hussein and castigating John Kerry for both his vote against the 1991 Gulf War and in favor of last year’s invasion.
Meanwhile, President Bartlet or, um, Martin Sheen, was elsewhere in the state stumping for Dean. Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy spent a couple days traveling with Kerry. Republicans, not wanting to miss out on the primary action, sent Rudy Giuliani, Governor George Pataki, and Sen. John McCain into the state to campaign for President Bush.
Kerry, still looking for some of that “big mo” with the young folks, had his stepson, Chris Heinz, leading a pack of wily hipsters into the fields and streets of Cow Hampshire. Among their number was actor Scott Wolf from “Party of Five,” Kelly Scott from MTV’s “The Real World” and Max Weinberg, drummer for both Springsteen’s E Street Band and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. By the way, Wolf and Scott are like totally dating. Can you believe it? Don’t you just want to scream?
CABLE TELEVISION GOT INTO the act as well. Of course, the prerequisite news channels were all on hand with giant busses. I was in a small bathroom earlier this week with Wolf Blitzer, David Broder, Carl Cameron, and Tim Russert. Also: Lifetime, the network for shrill women, held the “Every Woman Counts Forum” at Dartmouth College, moderated by Claire Shipman of ABC news.
This event was necessary, according to a Lifetime press release, because “issues such as equal pay, violence against women, and sexual harassment are more important to women than homeland security or the war in Iraq.” Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman were only too happy to attend and no doubt assure these women that they felt the same way.
Jon Stewart and The Daily Show crew are also on the ground here. Saturday night the “fake news show” put together a panel to rival most “real news” shows. NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, Joe Klein of Time magazine, Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, and New Hampshire Senator John Sununu all took part.
But Dennis Kucinich — Oh! Dennis Kucinich! — God love his crazy soul. How he has outdone all the other candidates combined. Sunday evening at the University of New Hampshire, Kucinich’s “peace and love bus” brought an eight-hour party to the kids. The extravaganza included DJs, fire walkers, graffiti artists, dancers, exotic drummers, and organic foods. Kucinich himself skipped the party to attend a Tim Reynolds concert across campus.
Kucinich recently complained that the media’s coverage of his campaign “shows you the vacuousness of journalism today.” Ah, but enough criticism of the poor congressman from this writer. It would no doubt be a crushing disappointment for anyone who brought the whole circus to town, hoping to be the Ringmaster, to end up just another clown.
In the libraries and the supermarkets, in the theaters before the lights go down and while trucks are being unloaded at the dump: Everyone is becoming a part of the debate. The people have temporarily shelved their cynicism and cannot wait for election day. And, though most people in New Hampshire would be loath to admit it, when the spotlight of the world swings away, they’ll miss it.
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