New Hampshire warms up to Southern candidate

Quirky state is receptive to Edwards' message

Election 2004

January 24, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - By the rules of political geography, Sen. John Edwards should have about as much chance in the New Hampshire primary as kudzu in a snowdrift.

The North Carolina senator with the deep drawl is going up against a field that includes three New Englanders, two of them from states bordering New Hampshire: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Edwards' manner - Southern charm compounded by a trial lawyer's salesmanship - is the polar opposite of Yankee curtness.

Yet Edwards' Southern identity, far from being a liability, might be emerging as an advantage. Buoyed by his surprising second-place finish in Iowa, the first-term senator is drawing large crowds across New Hampshire and is threatening to finish as high as second in Tuesday's primary, despite having a relatively weak organization in the state.

In barely a week, he has almost doubled his strength in tracking polls. The most recent, released last night by the Los Angeles Times, says 13 percent of likely voters favor him, within hailing distance of retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark at 17 percent and Dean at 19 percent. Kerry is far in front with 32 percent, while the third New Englander, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, trails at 5 percent.

The poll, conducted between Tuesday and yesterday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Part of the reason for Edwards' rise is pure Yankee pragmatism. New Hampshire Democrats desperate to unseat President Bush appear receptive to Edwards' claim, repeated in every speech, that he could break the GOP hold on the South.

"I'm the guy who can beat George Bush in every place in America - in the North, the West, the Midwest, and talking like this, in the South," a drawling Edwards declares to cheers at every appearance.

"The South is not George Bush's back yard; the South is my back yard, and I will beat George Bush in the South."

But the state's willingness to consider a Southerner over candidates from next door might go beyond expedience to some often-overlooked quirks of New Hampshire culture. In some ways, the state shares more with the South, and the rest of the country, than do other New England states, and its relationship with its neighbors is so complicated that Dean and Kerry are not necessarily considered favorite sons.

Unlike its left-leaning neighbors, New Hampshire is a political swing state, its moderation on social issues balanced by strong anti-tax sentiment and a suspicion of political correctness. The only Democrat to gain a major statewide office in recent years was former governor Jeanne Shaheen, from Missouri and Mississippi, with the accent to prove it.

The state was among the last to adopt a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. And where Vermont, for instance, is easily caricatured as a bastion of Birkenstock-wearing, scarf-knitting, organic-farming folk musicians, some corners of New Hampshire could possibly be mistaken for distant parts of Middle America. Local radio is dominated by classic rock and country.

An annual weeklong motorcycle rally in Laconia draws more than 300,000 every May. And the New Hampshire International Speedway, just east of Concord, plays host to two Winston Cup races a year, the only ones held in New England.

"New Hampshire is a little bit different than the other states up here," said Richard Hastings, a retired orthopedic surgeon who came to see Edwards at Hanover town hall.

For Southern candidates, that means being subjected to less condescension than they might find elsewhere in New England. (In Massachusetts, a Boston Globe sports columnist referred to Charlotte, N.C., this week as the "capital of Yahoo, USA.") Georgia's Jimmy Carter won the primary in 1976, and Arkansas' Bill Clinton finished a strong second behind Massachusetts native Paul E. Tsongas in 1992.

"My hypothesis is that the `Live Free or Die' spirit makes the state, in an anomalous way, one of the most tolerant and open-minded states of all," said Peter Burling, the Democratic leader of the New Hampshire House, who recently switched his backing to Edwards from Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who bowed out after finishing a poor fourth in the Iowa caucuses.

"There's a yin and a yang to the notion `I'm going to live this flinty private life up here,' where at the same time they're saying, `I'm going to be open to what these guys from other parts of the country have to say.'"

This year, this willingness to consider heavy-accented Southerners might be helping to fuel a last-minute rise by Edwards. Leaving a packed Edwards town hall meeting in Portsmouth on Wednesday, 60-something Democrat Connie Williams said she found Edwards' charm winning, not off-putting, even if she isn't accustomed to it.

"He doesn't come across as being smooth; he comes across as being a gentleman," she said. "There's a certain kindness."

The other Southern candidate in the race, Arkansas native Clark, is less identifiable with a region. As a career military man, he has lived around the world.

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