Where nothing is set in granite New Hampshire: Voters in the nation's kickoff primary state still cherish their reputation for confounding predictions. But much of the accepted wisdom about how to persuade them is rapidly becoming outdated.

Sun Journal

February 17, 1996|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CONCORD, N.H. -- In 1964, the Republican presidential primary here was supposed to be a contest between conservative Barry M. Goldwater and liberal Nelson A. Rockefeller.

But a month before the vote, two young men, Paul Grindle and David Goldberg, opened an office across from the state Capitol and began a campaign to draft Henry Cabot Lodge, then ambassador to South Vietnam. While the two "serious" candidates built campaign organizations, the two amateurs sent postcards to every Republican household in the state, on which they could pledge support for Mr. Lodge and mail it in.

It seemed like a pointless exercise until Mr. Grindle and Mr. Goldberg invited skeptical reporters to open the mail with them. There was a flood of pledges. Indeed, Mr. Lodge polled enough write-in votes to defeat both Mr. Goldwater and Mr. Rockefeller.

The story is one of the legends of the New Hampshire primary that demonstrate how independent and contrary voters here can be. It's a reputation much on the minds of candidates and their strategists as this year's campaign enters its last days with Bob Dole, Patrick J. Buchanan and Lamar Alexander locked in a tight race.

In the 1964 race, Henry Cabot Lodge's candidacy went no further -- a reminder that the state has a mixed record at predicting who becomes a party's nominee. But it had exposed the weaknesses of the ostensibly "serious" challengers.

The episode demonstrated, too, that New Hampshire voters could be reached with the right message, even if it was contrary to conventional wisdom. And that has been demonstrated again and again. And New Hampshire voters then send explicit messages to the nation.

In 1968, Eugene J. McCarthy, a little-known Democratic senator from Minnesota, arrived with a legion of college students protesting the war in Vietnam and the policies of President Lyndon B. Johnson. When the votes were counted, the president -- backed by the Democratic governor and the state Democratic Party -- came in first, with 49 percent of the vote. But the real winner in the perceptions game was Senator McCarthy, with 42 percent -- a protest strong enough that Mr. Johnson withdrew before he could be embarrassed elsewhere.

In 1972, the anointed Democratic favorite was Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of neighboring Maine. But Mr. Muskie's local campaign manager made the mistake of predicting that the senator would win at least 50 percent of the vote. So he, too, became a "loser" when he polled only 46 percent to 37 for another insurgent anti-war candidate, Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota.

Democrats here were the first to expose the true strength of Jimmy Carter, an almost unknown one-term governor of Georgia, in 1976. They exposed the weakness of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts when he challenged Mr. Carter four years later.

But some of the myths no longer hold true.

The most cherished is that before making a decision New Hampshire voters insist on personally meeting the candidates, and perhaps more than once. But the time of the laconic Yankee weighing his choice at the general store has long since passed.

Although nearly 200,000 people may vote in the Republican primary Tuesday, it is unlikely that any candidate will have met more than 5,000 of them. In contrast, anyone with a television set will probably have seen a commercial from Steve Forbes -- perhaps 40 or 50 times. As former Gov. Hugh Gregg, who has written two books about the primary, puts it, "It's a new approach entirely."

Another myth is that New Hampshire voters are peculiarly issue-oriented. It is true that more voters here follow campaigns longer and more closely than in most other places. But they are by no means immune to moments of vivid television.

Edmund Muskie's candidacy was hurt most when he mounted the back of a truck outside the office of the Union Leader in Manchester and railed at the ultraconservative publisher, the late William Loeb, for articles criticizing Mr. Muskie's wife, Jane.

Mr. Muskie's face grew red and contorted with emotion, and there appeared to be tears running down his cheek.

The candidate and his handlers insisted later that it was simply snow melting on his face. But "the crying incident" crystallized doubts about the senator -- and has gone down in legend as an example of how not to deal with the Union Leader.

Another of the myths concerns the power of that newspaper. William Loeb could be vicious in attacking those he considered dangerously liberal. He regularly referred to Mr. Rockefeller as "wife-swapper Rockefeller" and used anti-Semitic epithets when referring to Henry Kissinger in print.

In state and local campaigns, his vitriol was enough to keep liberal and moderate candidates on the sidelines. But there was never any clear correlation between his preferences in the presidential primaries and the results. The paper editorially supported Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont IV, a former governor of Delaware, in 1988, and this year is backing commentator Patrick J. Buchanan.

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