Candidates again court New Hampshire

September 27, 2004|By Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Like skiing and ice skating, presidential politics in New Hampshire is usually a winter sport. Every four years, the candidates of both major parties flock here when snow is on the ground for the traditional Granite State voting that kicks off the political primary season.

Then as soon as the results are in, they're off to other parts of the country where other primaries are to be fought. After that comes the general election, which is focused usually on the largest states with rich electoral vote prizes.

But this year, with a close finish predicted between President Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry, states that were narrowly decided in the 2000 squeaker between Mr. Bush and Al Gore are getting heavy attention, including New Hampshire. Mr. Bush won there by only about 7,200 votes four years ago.

The Bush and Kerry campaigns realize full well that had the state's four electoral votes gone to Mr. Gore, he would have been elected with the bare 270 needed. Switches in any one of several other closely contested states would have produced the same result, but for New Hampshire, finding itself back in the spotlight as autumn leaves begin to fall is unusual.

As a result, unprecedented grass-roots organization is under way similar to the kind for which New Hampshire has been noted during its famed winter presidential primary. And it is being bolstered by frequent candidate visits and TV advertising by the two national parties and some independent groups.

Last week, both President Bushes, Nos. 41 and 43, were in the state, and the Democrats were represented by Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the party's vice presidential nominee. Mr. Kerry also is a frequent visitor.

As in many states with no regional ties to Mr. Kerry, the question remains here whether his support goes beyond his being the vehicle for the ABB vote - Anybody But Bush. Kathy Sullivan, the Democratic state chairman, and Nick Clemons, the Kerry state campaign director, say there is a strong pro-Kerry vote, particularly in southern New Hampshire, where so many voters either hail from Massachusetts or commute to work there.

Also, Ms. Sullivan says, "it's not as if the Bushes as a family are really popular here." She noted the junior Mr. Bush's primary loss to Sen. John McCain here in 2000 and bad feeling for the senior Mr. Bush in 1992 because of a perceived neglect of the state's severe recession.

But as the current president noted at a town meeting in Derry last week, unemployment in New Hampshire now is below the national average. Julie Teer, his campaign director here, cites frequent visits to the state since the primary season. "The president has not forgotten New Hampshire," she says.

As for Mr. Kerry, Ms. Teer says that in canvassing voters, even in Democratic Manchester, she occasionally hears "`I don't like George Bush,' but never pro-Kerry. You don't hear a lot about, `Why I like John Kerry.'"

Tom Rath, the state's Republican National Committee member, agrees. "It's hard to find anybody who's pro-Kerry," he says. Among those who say they're going to vote Democratic, Mr. Rath says, "it's all anti-Bush." Mr. Kerry, he says, "spends all day explaining [his position on Iraq]. When you're explaining, you're losing."

The polls have been swinging between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry here, and each side suggests that unprecedented grass-roots efforts will carry the day for its candidate. Mr. Rath says the Bush "micro-targeting" of voters is unlike anything he's ever seen here. "They can tell you there are 15 people in a ward who subscribe to Sports Illustrated."

Working the grass roots for Mr. Kerry is the new group Americans Coming Together (ACT). Its state director, Dennis Newman, says volunteers have knocked on more than 50,000 doors in the state.

The Democrats also hope that staff scandals will hurt Republican Gov. Craig Benson, who is seeking re-election, and depress the GOP vote, to Mr. Kerry's advantage. But in the end, his chances here as elsewhere may rest more on how voters feel about Mr. Bush than about him.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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