Last week, the nation's first primary state was the focus of Republican candidates and pundits. The first fall debate, the entry and first visit from Fred Thompson and the re-emergence of John McCain as a viable contender may have shaken the contest in New Hampshire, and in doing so the GOP race.
At the debate and in post-debate reviews from MSM outlets and conservative pundits, it was clear that John McCain was back in the hunt for the nomination. After a fundraising wipeout and organizational revamp that reduced McCain's staff to a regional operation focused on just a few key states, most pundits wrote him off. But at the September 5 debate a forceful appearance, and in particular his encounter with Mitt Romney, in which McCain instructed his rival that the surge was working, not just "apparently," McCain got the needed boost he was seeking.
It was the right time and the right place for a McCain revival. A McCain aide explains the campaign's thinking as follows: "The road to the nomination goes through John McCain in New Hampshire. John McCain excels in the kind of campaigning that wins in New Hampshire. His willingness to engage in lengthy and uninhibited question-and-answer sessions plays to all of his strengths -- humor, candor and command of the issues -- and separates him from every other candidate in the race." He will be a frequent visitor with his No Surrender Tour, another opportunity to remind voters of his foreign policy credentials, and with frequent campaign stops in the months ahead, according to his staff.
McCain also has a significant advantage: independent voters. On the day of the primary independents, actually dubbed "undeclared" voters in New Hampshire, can request either party's ballot. Should he get a sizable chunk of these voters to whom his maverick message is appealing, he may -- as he did in 2000 -- ride to victory (or at least a strong finish) on the backs of non-Republicans.
Meanwhile the man who was supposed to shake up the race got off to a rocky start with Granite State voters. Fred Thompson drew the ire of the Union Leader and state GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen for entering the race the day after the debate. It is not often that a debate begins with a jab at a candidate by the state chair, in this case Cullen who praised candidates who chose to debate rather than take out a 30-second ad (as Thompson had done on Bill O'Reilly's show on Fox immediately preceding the debate).
Thompson aides assured New Hampshire voters they meant no disrespect and would be in the state often. His trip to New Hampshire last weekend drew cautious praise from Cullen, who advised: "Let me just say that the Scamman Chili fest was exactly the sort of event he should be doing here, and I hope he'll be doing a lot more of them in the coming weeks."
However, serious doubts remained about his commitment to winning there given the absence of any paid staff or any permanent campaign office in the state so far. AP reported: "As for whether he's impossibly late, New Hampshire adviser Bill Cahill bluntly says he doesn't know. 'The fact is, we'll see if he's too late,' he said. 'But Thompson hasn't spent money yet. He hasn't burned through 24 million bucks.'"
Deputy Communications Director Karen Hanretty sought to minimize Cahill's statements, saying he was only "expressing some cautious optimism and not feeding in to the expectation game." She added: "I think the successes of the last few days -- from Fred's announcement on Leno to his campaign stops through Iowa and New Hampshire -- are evidence that his entry into the political race was well timed. I question whether or not it was wise for the rest of the field to have started campaigning practically the day after Bush won re-election. They may find by the time the first votes are cast that they've worn out their welcome."
Meanwhile Mitt Romney, whose debate performance was rated as one of his less accomplished, continues to lead in the polls and is a frequent visitor. Last Friday he made five appearances, including three "Ask Mitt Anything" open forums. He benefits from a nearly favorite son status after four years as governor of Massachusetts. In addition, Cullen rates his organization as the best and largest in the state. Romney's opponents question whether his poll numbers merely reflect that he has to date had a monopoly on paid TV ads. However, his campaign contends that he has simply done the best job of retail politics in a state famous for insisting on the right to interrogate the contenders.
As for Rudy Giuliani, his campaign candidly admits that he got a comparatively late start, but he is attempting to make up for lost time. It is no accident he rolled out his tax commitment in New Hampshire in late August. His frequent reminders of the 23 taxes he cut or eliminated in New York City are aimed squarely at the famously fiscally conservative New Hampshire voters. Like McCain, he may benefit from an influx of independents on Election Day.
So far from being a foregone conclusion and an all but certain win for Romney, the New Hampshire contest, like the rest of the race, is up in the air. Despite hoopla over Internet technology and micro-targeting, the candidates' own actions demonstrate the key to winning the nation's first primary: solid organizations and frequent retail politicking. So regardless of a chaotic primary calendar, New Hampshire will be proving its influence and drawing presidential hopefuls once again.
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