Making New Hampshire the First Test Thank Stassen

February 16, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN Jr. | THEO LIPPMAN Jr.,Theo Lippman Jr. is an editorial writer for The Sun who has managed to avoid New Hampshire in February in eight of the last nine Leap Years.

Of all the unrealistic candidacies in New Hampshire's presidential primary this year, none is more of a joke than Harold Stassen's. He is almost 85 years old. He hasn't won an elective office in 50 years. But every New Hampshireman he passes by on icy sidewalks up there this month ought to get down on his hands and knees and kiss the cuff of this great man's trousers.

Harold Stassen invented New Hampshire. I mean, he made the state's first-in-the-nation presidential preference primary something of great value. It has become the state's psychic foundation -- its reason for being -- and one of its most important economic underpinnings. Once every four years New Hampshire the object of international attention; all Americans care what they think up there, and the influx of candidates, political advisers, pollsters and journalists increases the gross state product by 27.33 percent.

The idea of electing and/or instructing delegates to national presidential nominating conventions began in 1912. It was part of the progressive movement's effort to take important political decisions out of the hands of bosses and put them into the hands of the masses. New Hampshire began doing this in 1916.

But the system played a relatively small role in national politics for the next 30 years. In New Hampshire, candidates for delegates in both parties were only unofficially committed to presidential candidates, if at all, and the winning delegates were chosen on the basis of their own local popularity, not their candidate's.

Candidates for president did not campaign there. In 1948, knowing the Republican Party powers-that-be were divided in their support among several other candidates, outsider Harold Stassen announced he would actively campaign for delegates who would support him. They were described as "friendly but unpledged." He went to the state to make speeches, bringing along in his wake political reporters for many newspapers.

Governor Stassen (of Minnesota, first elected in 1938 at age 31) figured that the headlines he generated in New Hampshire would help his candidacy in primaries in selected other states. He figured that if he won the most primaries, the bosses would have to treat him seriously. New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, the Republican presidential nominee in 1944, ran against him -- though "ran" is not the word for it. He never set foot in the state in 1947 and 1948, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.

The New Yorker easily won the delegate fight, however, and went on to win the nomination. But party bosses had been made to take notice of the process, and New Hampshire, having liked the attention, rewrote its election code in 1949 to allow a direct vote for presidential candidates. That, in effect, required would-be presidents to campaign in that earliest primary.

At least it did after a pattern appeared that suggested winning the New Hampshire primary was a requirement for becoming president.

In 1952, two other outsiders went into New Hampshire to thwart the party bosses. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee defeated President Harry Truman in the Democratic primary. The president shortly thereafter announced his decision not to seek another term.

Some observers linked the two events. President Truman said they were not connected. I think that's true. I think President Truman decided not to run in 1952 because Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower won the Republican half of the primary in New Hampshire. General Eisenhower's backers had convinced him that only by displaying his popularity and winning delegates early could he prevent Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio from winning the nomination. Truman thought, I believe, that he could beat the very conservative Taft, but not Ike, the hero and moderate.

Ike was nominated and elected, in 1952 and again in 1956, after winning the primary again. Every president since then has won the New Hampshire primary:

John Kennedy won in 1960. Lyndon Johnson in 1964, as a write-in candidate. Richard Nixon in 1968. By then the New Hampshire primary had become so central to a candidacy, that Nixon's principal opponent, Michigan Gov. George Romney, withdrew from the race before the primary vote was cast, when his polls showed he would be badly beaten. In 1972, Nixon the one again. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won in a crowded field. In 1980, Ronald Reagan in a breeze. In 1984, ditto. In 1988, George Bush won a close one from Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.

That's quite a streak, 10 in a row.

You can win a party's presidential nomination without winning New Hampshire. Paul Tsongas' predicted victory there Tuesday does not necessarily predict he will be nominated at the convention in New York in July.

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