Wednesday, June 08, 2005

RICHARDSON: THE NEW HAMPSHIRE RITUAL

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 8, 2005



MANCHESTER, N.H. — Many of the New Hampshire political veterans who came to hear Gov. Bill Richardson on Tuesday at a “Politics and Eggs” breakfast and at the 2005 New Hampshire Latino Summit assume Richardson’s trip here this week is a classic testing of the waters.

They have no doubt the New Mexico Democrat’s grueling schedule of speeches, interviews, fundraisers and private meetings with party honchos is part of the same ritual that scores of other would-be presidents have gone through.

At a news conference, Richardson remained officially noncommittal about his intentions in New Hampshire, traditional site of the nation’s earliest presidential primary: “I haven’t ruled anything out.”

On other occasions, he joked about presidential ambitions. He said he is too busy with local issues to run for president. “Like the new snowmobile trail in Dixville Notch,” he quipped, referring to a New Hampshire state park.

It’s an election process that starts so early that most average citizens here — people who work in stores and restaurants — don’t seem to know or care about the politicians making “Hey, look me over” trips through their communities.

“No one’s going to declare their candidacies until after the midterm elections,” observed Michael Chaney, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Political Library, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of the New Hampshire presidential primary. “But it does not hurt to come up here and make friends with political leaders.”

James Pindell, managing editor of a Web site called politicsNH.com, said of Richardson: “He’s the third Democrat to come up so far. His agenda is to be mentioned as many times as possible as a potential candidate.”

State Senate Deputy Minority Leader Lou D’Allesandro said the 2008 primary clearly has started already. “I was with (U.S. Sen.) Joe Biden (a Democrat from Delaware) last night,” he said. “I helped Gov. Richardson set up his schedule.”

D’Allesandro, who supported former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina in the 2004 primary, said he would be inclined to support Edwards again if he runs. But he said Richardson is making the right moves in New Hampshire.

“The person who wins is the person who connects,” he said in an interview at his state Capitol office in Concord. “If he comes and he connects and people see him and want more Bill Richardson, he’ll get momentum. These visits are in that category.”

A sense of state boosterism about the New Hampshire primary is one area in which Democrats and Republicans share the same view. Warren Henderson, state chairman of the New Hampshire Republican party, said Tuesday that early — and frequent — visits by national candidates are good for the people of New Hampshire. “I don’t know about the Democrats,” he said, “but Republicans ask over and over for national politicians to come visit. It helps us raise money and draw crowds.”

In an interview at his office across the street from the Capitol, Henderson said the New Hampshire primary is an opportunity for candidates to not only promote themselves, but to promote issues they care about. “In Washington, there are only four or five issues they talk about,” he said. “But when you come to a place where politics is always in season, you can make your issue part of the national debate.”

Richardson got belly laughs from politicians and business leaders Tuesday when he joked about the New Hampshire primary’s traditional first-in-the-nation status.

“Being from New Mexico, I believe very strongly in a Western primary,” he said. People from the West should have a say in who is chosen for president, he said. “The people of Keene should have the same right as the people of Manchester.”

(For those unfamiliar with Granite State geography, Keene is in the western part of the state, Manchester in the east.)

Later in the speech, Richardson went back to the subject, saying despite his support for an early Western-state primary, New Hampshire should remain the first primary in the presidential-selection process.

“Besides the fact that it’s your birthright,” he said, “you are the grass-roots state.”

Reassuring people in New Hampshire that he does not want to usurp their first-primary status was a good move on Richardson’s part, several political observers agreed.

New Hampshire voters are protective about their primary — which by state law must be held before any other state’s presidential primary.

Both Democrats and Republicans here seem to think this status is under siege. The national Democratic Party has a commission studying various plans to restructure the primary process.

Richardson and other Western governors have for more than a year been talking about an early Western presidential primary.

“The advocacy of an early Western primary won’t hurt as long as it’s after (New Hampshire’s),” Linda Fowler, a political-science professor at Dartmouth College, said in an e-mail last week. “Otherwise, the hostility will be pretty thick.”

The New Hampshire primary dates to 1916, when it was one of three states to conduct a primary to elect delegates to party conventions. For many years, the state selected uncommitted delegates to the conventions and didn’t vote directly for candidates. That changed here in 1952, a year when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower proved he could win votes by defeating Republican Party favorite U.S. Sen. Robert Taft in the GOP presidential primary and U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver upset President Harry Truman in Democratic Party voting.

Unlike New Mexico, where the state pays for primaries in which only major-party voters can participate, New Hampshire allows independent voters to cast ballots in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. More than 40 percent of voters here are registered as independents.

Although Richardson trails far behind in a recent New Hampshire poll, many state residents feel he would have a decent shot.

Westerners like Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado have emerged victorious in New Hampshire — at the expense of the perceived front-runner.

And one little quirk about New Hampshire: Due to the intense news-media and political-professional-class analyses of the primary and “horse-race” coverage, you don’t actually have to come in first in order to “win” the primary.

Ask Democrat George McGovern, who came in behind front-runner Edmund Muskie in 1972, or Bill Clinton, who came in 8 percentage points behind U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts in 1992.

Most New Hampshire residents interviewed said they expect to see a lot more of Richardson in the next two and a half years. And the governor did nothing to dispel such talk. Concluding his speech at the Latino Summit luncheon, Richardson said, “See you soon.”

The early polls:

A recent poll by The Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire indicates New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has a long way to go to win the New Hampshire primary.

In April, pollsters read a list of potential Democratic candidates and asked 178 voters which ones they would support if the election were held now. Richardson’s numbers were in single digits — a distant fifth behind better-known potential candidates.

Smith said it’s not surprising Richardson scores so low in New Hampshire at this point — about two and a half years before the next presidential primary.

Several New Hampshire political observers have noted that Granite State voters sometimes back candidates initially seen as long shots.

On the Republican side, a Smith poll of 195 voters showed former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani in the early lead with 29 percent, followed by Arizona Sen. John McCain with 25 percent. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was a distant third with 9 percent.

Blog on Break

I'm on vacation this week and so is this blog. Don't worry, I'll be back Friday night with the Santa Fe Opry playlist and b...