N.H. election campaign begins with clean slate

Candidates starting even in state that holds nation's first presidential primary


MILFORD, N.H. -- Around Union Square -- known here as the Oval because it is ovate -- there is not much talk these days about presidential politics.

John R. Kasich was here a couple of months ago and had his hair cut by Joe Swiezynski, a notorious political buff whose shop faces the Oval. It was Kasich's first stop in New Hampshire, the day he announced his candidacy, and those who were there say Joe liked the young Republican congressman from Ohio.

But even Joe's wife, Margaret -- she doesn't mind being called Mrs. Republican -- hasn't made up her mind on a choice in a primary that is still more than nine months away.

The big story last week in the Milford Cabinet, the town's weekly newspaper, was about the $594,000 that had been left to the Wadleigh Memorial Library by a one-time pressman for the newspaper. And there is a lot of concern about how the new agreement on school financing reached by the state Legislature in Concord is going to affect local taxes and the quality of education.

"I know we're going to have to pay more," said Dot Greene, a mother of two preschool boys she was loading into a car on the Oval. "But I'm willing, so long as they get a good education." Asked whether she is paying attention to the early maneuvering in the presidential primary campaign, Greene was dismissive.

"I've read some about that in the [Nashua] Telegraph, but those people aren't going to help us with our schools," she said. "You can bet on that."

Another shopper, Teresa Fanelli, said she became a little interested when Elizabeth Hanford Dole became a GOP candidate.

"I like the idea of a woman president," she said, "but everybody tells me that [Texas Gov.] George Bush is going to get it. We'll wait and see. These things don't always turn out like the experts say."

Besides the visit from Kasich, the only other event here that might have been connected, even remotely, to the primary campaign was a speech to a Chamber of Commerce dinner by Republican Gov. George E. Pataki of New York.

But if Pataki was hinting at his availability as a presidential possibility, not everyone got the point.

"I don't know what he was doing here," said a businessman who attended the dinner.

Carolyn Falgares, president of the Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce, said that "it's just too early" for folks in Milford to focus on the primary.

"There are too many other things for people to be concerned about," she said.

Michael Cleveland, the editor of the Cabinet, uses a tried-and-true barometer to measure the lack of interest in presidential politics so far.

"We haven't had a single letter to the editor about the primary," he said.

His paper, meanwhile, is packed with news about the retirement of a fire chief and the American Stage Festival's threat to cancel its summer season if it can't raise $100,000.

Political activists have made similar findings.

Lukewarm interest

"The level of interest so far is lukewarm," said Jack Spanos, the town Republican chairman. "It's just not a red-hot issue."

When someone like Kasich comes to town, Spanos said, he feels obliged to produce a crowd for him.

"We have to work pretty hard to turn them out," he said.

"It's very hard to say what the flavor is in town," said Loreen Daniels, the wife of a state legislator. "We need to see and hear from all the candidates to see which one to support. They're very similar in a lot of ways."

Milford, a town of 13,000, is not a typical New Hampshire community; there probably isn't one. But it's not atypical either, in its mix of old New Hampshire families and newcomers who moved in from Boston and commute or work in the high-tech businesses around Nashua. The town, founded in 1794, was once known as the Granite City, but almost all the quarries have played out. The biggest employer now is Hitchiner Manufacturing, which employs 750 to make metal castings.

It is reflective of New Hampshire politically because it has been consistently conservative. There are, however, some small signs of change as more Democrats move into the community. Indeed, a Democrat was elected last year to the state Senate to replace a long-established and devoutly conservative Republican.

There is some muttering, sotto voce, among Republicans about the religious right becoming an increasing influence.

"They're all going to be with [former Vice President Dan] Quayle," a businessman said. "But that's about all he's got around here."

Ed Farrington, a former town Republican chairman, said the politically active people "are kind of torn" because there are so many good candidates. But if there is one candidate making any waves, he said, it is Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

`McCain is rising'

"McCain is rising," he said. "He's the only one who's really come out with an agenda. He's starting to get his message out."

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