Primary New Hampshire

NASHUA, NEW HAMPSHIRE--Political lore says that George Bush (père) lost the 1980 primary when he sat grinning dumbly as Ronald Reagan proclaimed that he had "paid for this microphone" during a debate here.

Of course, that this is not true (the debate merely helped turn a loss into a rout) matters less than its being part of the political culture in the state where Ed Muskie cried (or perhaps didn't) in the snow, George Romney said he was brainwashed, Eugene McCarthy's antiwar students stunned Lyndon Johnson, and a minor candidate named Ned Coll held up a rubber rat during a nationally televised debate.

The bit of lore that most worries George Bush (fils), as well as Al Gore, is this: New Hampshire voters take a perverse joy in bringing down early front-runners.

Once again, the lore is a tad off, though Barry Goldwater, Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, and Bob Dole might not think so. The decline of early front-runners here says less about the perversities of New Hampshire voters than about the inanity of early polls: They measure a public opinion that does not yet exist. The results would be the same no matter which state went first; the numbers would change once people started paying attention.

Which is not to deny that this place is weird. Campaigning here is personal, an invigorating contrast to the television-dominated, consultant-driven politics of everyplace else. New Hampshire voters insist on physical presence--it's their own version of habeas corpus. (The state's signature joke: Old-timer Number One: "Who ya gonna vote for?" Old-timer Number Two: "Dunno yet. Only met each one of them twice so far.") This kind of personal contact also renders money less important, giving an underfinanced candidate a chance to become a serious contender.

The first primary is fun. The political community--the candidates, their staffs, the academics, the reporters--takes over for a week. They party. The hotel lobbies in Manchester and Concord become political kibitzing centers. The restaurants are full of leakers and leakees performing their rituals over expense-account meals. Locals flock to the hotel bars at night to see the celebrities. No, not the candidates. The anchormen.

But why New Hampshire? Why should these 1.2 million people--four-tenths of 1 percent of the country, 98 percent of them white, none of them required to pay a state income or general sales tax, and many of them influenced by the absurdly right-wing Manchester Union-Leader--be granted this much influence every four years?

Well, despite a study revealing that most New Hampshire primary voters do not meet the candidates in person, the fact is they could if they wanted to. There is hardly a citizen here without a friend or neighbor who hosted a coffee klatch for a candidate. The same cannot be said for residents of Illinois or New Jersey, California or New York.

More important, the folks in those other states might not be up to the job. New Hampshire is distinctive, says Manchester pollster L. Dickinson Bennett, because its "government is so close to the people." Its 400-member house of representatives provides a representative for every 2,200 adult citizens. "People here are accustomed to just walking up to their elected representatives and speaking their mind, the way they do in town meeting. Presidential candidates are no different." Particularly in towns that maintain the old direct democracy system for both municipality and school districts, people are adept at getting up at a public meeting and telling an official what they really think.

Of New Hampshire's three political peculiarities, only one is unchanged and unchanging: Almost everyone here is white. This seems unpropitious for a nonwhite candidate. But should there ever arise a nonwhite candidate who could get elected, a strong showing in an all-white state could be a boon. (Think JFK in West Virginia in 1960.)

Then there is New Hampshire's status as one of only two states (Alaska is the other) with neither an income tax nor a general sales tax. This could change. The state supreme court declared the old school-financing system unconstitutional, and Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen got the legislature to pass a statewide property tax. But it may not survive. Last month, 23 towns that have to raise their property tax rates filed a class action lawsuit against the new plan.

Finally there is the Union-Leader, which is neither as powerful nor as outrageous as when William Loeb ran it. Loeb hated taxes and nonwhite human beings; there was hardly a segregationist cause he did not champion. But he is dead, and the newspaper's endorsement is unlikely to do Steve Forbes more good than it did for Pete du Pont in 1988.

Still, do New Hampshire's idiosyncrasies disqualify the state from its bellwether-for-the-nation status? I don't think so.

I caught up the other day with Gary Bauer, as he spoke to the Nashua Rotary Club at a hotel, just a few miles north of the high school where Ronald Reagan cribbed that line Spencer Tracy used in State of the Union. The club members paid attention and asked intelligent questions, and Bauer had to sit through lunch, chatting with the club president, before he spoke.

All the candidates talk to Rotary clubs here; they have to. And they all sit through lunch. In New Hampshire, presidential candidates campaign in America, if a narrow slice of it, as opposed to that hermetically sealed tube made up of the campaign plane and the TV studio where the rest of the contest will take place. No, New Hampshire is hardly a representative state. But there's no such animal (Illinois comes closest, demographically), and there is something to be said about starting the process where political lore is part of the culture. ¤