CONCORD, N.H. -- When you get to New Hampshire on the map, Homer, put that blue crayon down.
Recent and melancholy electoral results in the Granite State don't justify conceding the only remaining state in the Northeast with any conservative DNA to the Democrats. There's no liberal surge here. Folks here aren't ready to change the license plate legend from "Live Free or Die" to "Just a Bunch of Wusses Like the Rest."
Regardless of what you hear or read to the contrary, New Hampshire is in play for 2008. And it remains as important in presidential politics as it's been since before Studebaker went broke. Important because of the unique brand of retail politics practiced here, and because state law requires New Hampshire's presidential primary to precede any other state's by a week. New Hampshire will remain ahead of the other states currently trying to cut the line, even if that means a 2007 primary for a 2008 race. ("Put down that drumstick, Mildred, time to vote.")
New Hampshire has a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in both houses of its state legislature, which hasn't happened since the 19th century. The state went slenderly to Jean-Francois Kerry in '04 and then lost the state legislature and both of its seats in the U.S. House to the Democrats in '06. All in what has been essentially a conservative and a Republican state for most of this century and the last. New Hampshire State Republican Chairman Fergus Cullen told me these results are "not a fluke," but rather a result of "a unique confluence of events not likely to happen again." He insists the odd political lineup does not reflect a philosophical change in the state. Almost all of the dozens of politicians, journalists, and just plain interested voters (lots of these per square yard up here) told me they agree with this analysis.
The confluence Cullen speaks of had to do with a big-spending and seemingly incompetent Republican administration in Washington and with real unease about the direction of the war in Iraq. Add a Republican-led Congress more interested in earmarks for their districts and in appeasing the left than in pursuing conservative principles, and the result was enough dispirited Republicans staying home election day to allow the Democrats to run the table.
But New Hampshire Democrats shouldn't get too comfortable. While Democrat governor John Lynch remains popular, the two Democratic U.S. House members have made few friends -- polls show their favorable ratings in the 30s -- by their consistently way-left, Pelosi-clone, voting. And the new Democratic legislature has annoyed lots of voters by enacting nanny-state stuff like smoking bans, seat-belt laws, civil unions for gays, and other stuff Democrats do when they are without adult supervision. (See above re "Live Free or Die.") The Democrats have also increased state spending 17 percent in a fiscally conservative state. So the recently victorious Democrats are vulnerable to the right kind of Republican candidates, from the top of the ticket to the bottom.
AS FOR THE TOP, it was an easy trick in my week's visit here to catch Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo strutting their stuff in venues including a country store, an auditorium at a solar panel manufacturer, a small concert hall, restaurants, and individual homes. Rudy fetched more than 300 at the solar manufacturer, and Tom Tancredo talked and answered question for more than a hour for 16 people at a home in Concord. All of these guys stressed getting good results in Iraq and the wider war with Islamo-jihadists. They pledged that if elected they would get control of America's borders and let only the right people in for the right reasons. They hit traditional Republican themes of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and the superiority of the market and free personal associations over a smothering nanny-state. As Giuliani put it, "I have compassion for people -- so I want to help them rather than take over their lives."
George W. Bush was almost never mentioned by either the candidates or by those questioning them. Nor did global warming ever come up.
All these guys are articulate, compelling, and stand a good chance with themes like these in a state with a plurality of voters who are essentially conservative, but with a fairly wide libertarian streak. I'm told even Fred Thompson with his Tennessee drawl has a shot in New Hampshire. "We like good ole boys up here," Nashua Telegraph columnist and conservative radio commentator Jennifer Horn told me.
Many here have real problems with how the war in Iraq is going. But Democrats make a big mistake if they think most voters in New Hampshire consider "Let's quit! -- Let's quit!" a foreign policy. It's clear enough which party wants to retreat and which is ready to engage our enemies.
MY MAIN REASONS for visiting New Hampshire was to visit with an old friend, to escape Tampa's oppressive summer heat, and to catch the Sawks at Fenway (they came from behind to beat the Angels before more than 36,000 of Manny Ramirez's closest and most vocal friends). But I also took the occasion for a close look at New Hampshire's storied retail presidential politics. I'm glad I did. Things in this arena are alive and well. New Hampshire, along with Iowa, is still vetting the candidates for the rest of the country in that up close and personal way. Nothing packaged about the way candidates here are obliged to answer sometimes pointed and mostly intelligent questions, usually far away from television cameras.
When these guys leave New Hampshire, they'll move on to states where campaigning is wholesale, where packaging for TV rules, and where the voters don't get nearly the opportunity to talk back as they do here. Even Tom Tancredo wouldn't talk to 16 people in a private home in Florida, not unless there were TV cameras there. In New Hampshire, voters get the measure of candidates, and put them on the spot in ways they just can't do elsewhere. It helps the savvy and engaged voters here make up their minds, it helps the rest of us better understand those who want to be America's CEO, and it will still give the candidates who win here a heck of a bump.
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