Celebrating five decades of being first

March 18, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - A few days ago in New Hampshire, about 250 political junkies gathered to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of the state's most treasured institutions: its first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

The New Hampshire primary actually is more than half a century old, but on March 11, 1952, New Hampshire Democrats and Republicans were able for the first time to vote directly for presidential candidates whose names were on the primary ballot rather than simply for delegate slates.

The change, pushed through the state legislature by then-House Speaker Richard Upton, brought new interest and excitement to the primary, attracting some but not all of the national candidates and out-of-state reporters and greatly increasing voter turnout in the process. Mr. Upton's son, Matthew, received a plaque to commemorate the occasion on the 50th anniversary.

Ever since 1952, the New Hampshire primary has been a surefire magnet for presidential hopefuls.

Already, two years before the 2004 primary, Democratic prospects Al Gore, John Kerry, John Edwards and Richard Gephardt have journeyed to the state.

Fifty years ago, the principal candidates on the Republican ballot there were Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, busy in Europe as the head of NATO forces, former Gov. Harold Stassen of Minnesota and Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio. General Eisenhower, though absent, was a decisive winner.

The major Democrats listed were President Harry S. Truman, who dismissed the primaries as "eyewash" and declined to campaign, and Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who scored an upset that helped persuade Mr. Truman not to seek another term.

When General Eisenhower was elected and Mr. Kefauver lost the Democratic nomination to a draft of Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, a tradition was born that thereafter no candidate could reach the White House without winning the kickoff New Hampshire primary. It held until 1992, when a scandal-plagued Bill Clinton, declaring himself "the Comeback Kid," finished second there and was elected president anyway.

A second New Hampshire loser, Republican George W. Bush (to Sen. John McCain), also defied the tradition in 2000 with a comeback that put him in the White House. In the same primary on the Democratic side, Mr. Gore beat Bill Bradley and effectively ended Mr. Bradley's presidential bid.

Over the 50 years, the New Hampshire primary has also been the launching pad of John F. Kennedy (in 1960), the political rebirth of Richard Nixon (in 1968), the beginning of the political end for Lyndon Johnson (embarrassed in 1968 by a close-second by Eugene McCarthy and his anti-Vietnam War "Children's Crusade"), the emergence of Jimmy Carter (in 1976) and the resurrection of Ronald Reagan after an upset defeat in the Iowa caucuses (in 1980).

Over this half a century, New Hampshire has had to fight off efforts by other states, jealous of the national attention bestowed on the first-in-the-nation primary, to move ahead of it on the presidential election year calendar. Another state law, sponsored by Rep. Jim Splaine, mandates that New Hampshire always hold its primary first, seven days before any other state. Mr. Splaine, too, got a plaque for his efforts the other day. The two national parties have also institutionalized the New Hampshire primary as the first in the nation.

There remains, however, the minor nuisance of the Iowa precinct caucuses, which traditionally pick their convention delegates first in a process that differs from the primary by having voters meet in neighborhoods around the state to discuss their choices before voting. But Iowa and New Hampshire years ago worked out a deal where Iowa does its thing first and the Granite State holds the first "real" primary eight days later.

Because the New Hampshire primary more closely resembles a normal election day than do the Iowa caucuses, and has a longer tradition of candidate participation and news media attention, it remains the more highly publicized of the two. Also, because New Hampshire is a much smaller state, it lends itself to more intensified campaigning.

In New Hampshire, legend holds that a woman, asked whether she had made up her mind about which candidate she was going to vote for, replied: "I don't know yet. I've only talked to each of them three times so far."

Two years from now, she'll be able to say it again.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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