New Hampshire means to stay in first place

Presidential primary mirrors the state's political identity

September 16, 2007|By John M. Glionna | John M. Glionna,Los Angeles times

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The old adage about never letting 'em see you sweat is something that Kriss Soterion takes quite literally.

The veteran makeup artist has pancaked the faces of numerous presidential candidates: Pat Buchanan, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, among others. Now business is booming after her recent makeover of Clinton for a televised debate.

It's the height of the presidential primary season, and the benefits are trickling down into virtually every corner of this state. Every four years New Hampshire gets a giant say in who will be the next occupant of the White House - and most of the state's 1.3 million occupants love basking in the national glow.

"It's not just about money," Soterion said, saying that the primary gives folks in New Hampshire "a sense of who we are."

Since 1920, New Hampshire has staked its turf as a White House proving ground with its unique form of one-on-one retail politics. So seriously does it take its role, the state legislature in 1975 passed a law requiring that the Granite State host the first presidential primary vote, after the Iowa caucuses.

This year, several states have tried to loosen New Hampshire's lock on the primary schedule. Michigan has acted to move its primary a week ahead of New Hampshire's, but the final voting days remain in flux.

Why, many ask, should a state with barely 1.3 million residents and little ethnic diversity wield so much influence?

"We've given New Hampshire the best seat in the house. They've been a national proxy for many years," said Donna Brazille, a veteran Democratic strategist. She says the time has come to move the first primary elsewhere.

But New Hampshire vows to stay in the pole position no matter what other states do.

"This is a place where the little guy has the say," said Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who for decades has decided when to schedule the state primary. "Why would you want to destroy that?"

Politicking here is like a step back in time. Candidates such as Jimmy Carter, Jack Kemp and Bob Kerrey played checkers with a general store owner, and Gary Hart threw an ax at a woodsman convention.

"New Hampshire brings campaigning to a human scale," said Hart, who ran for president in 1984. "Voters there know their politics. They've opened doors for dark-horse candidates - that's the beauty of the state."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president in 1988, also relished New Hampshire's retail politics.

"You're in a lot of living rooms and backyards," he said. "I enjoyed that a hell of a lot more than the post-nomination drill - up and down on planes giving airport speeches."

New Hampshire's tradition of micro-democracy dates to the 1700s, when town hall meetings originated in New England.

Today, the state holds 200 elections at the town and school district levels every year, with races for statewide offices, including governor, every two years.

New Hampshire boasts more people per capita who have either run or served in office than any other state.

Web sites here monitor not just whether White House hopefuls have visited the state, but where and how often.

A higher percentage volunteer for campaigns than anywhere else. School books instruct fourth-graders to "support and cherish this enduring tradition."

On primary day, roughly 70 percent of the state's 700,000 registered voters usually show up at the polls, a rate that's twice the national average.

In 2004, one in four state residents said they had met at least one of the candidates in person.

John M. Glionna writes for the Los Angeles times.

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