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Celebrities, debates spice up NH contest

Senior Political Reporter

January 07. 2012 9:04PM
Media members watch Saturday night's debate at Saint Anselm College. (KATE HARPER)

MANCHESTER - When the votes are finally cast in just two days, New Hampshire will have reached the end of a unique first-in-the-nation primary campaign, a campaign marked by the flirtations of 'celebrity politicians,' the rise and fall of candidate after candidate, and, until the past few days, less genuine retail campaigning than in past cycles.

While each primary race over the years had its own special characteristics, this one began to generate excitement many months ago with focus on the likes of 'celebrities' Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and Chris Christie.

Trump and Palin, as potential candidates, drew more media coverage during their spring and summer visits to the Granite State than any of the announced candidates did at the time.

The Palin, Trump and Christie flirtations 'caused the uniqueness of this entire race,' said veteran Republican strategist Michael Dennehy, a former national senior adviser to the 2008 GOP standard-bearer, Sen. John McCain.

Dennehy said, 'The late start of the race, the lack of traditional retail campaigning, the lack of fundraising, which has resulted in less advertising, I believe all of those are the result of Palin, Trump, Chris Christie - the unsettled field in general, which went all the way through October,' when Christie finally decided not to run.

As a result, said Dennehy, 'so many big fundraisers and officials sat on the sidelines waiting for the field to be settled, and that meant campaign organizations had to adjust to an 'in limbo' kind of strategy.'

Dennehy and Southern New Hampshire University political science professor Dean Spiliotes said the nearly two dozen debates in various states, including two this weekend in New Hampshire, changed the manner of campaigning in the Granite State.

'Candidates have been able to generate interest through appearances on cable television, the Internet as well as the debates,' said Spiliotes. 'That's essentially been a substitute for grassroots organization and fundraising.

'Throughout most of the cycle,' Spiliotes said, 'candidates have merrily gone from network to network every week with interviews and very high-profile debates, and a lot of these folks used that approach instead of doing the hard work of building an organization.

'The surges by one candidate and then the next in the polls were not connected to anything happening on the ground,' Spiliotes said. 'They were all connected to what was going on at the national level.'

'This entire election has been an anomaly in the way it played out,' said Dennehy, 'with the people who didn't get in and then the ups and downs of the candidates who did get in. It's all a result of the late start.'

Past primaries were marked by key turning points involving the candidates who were actually in the races.

-- In 1972, Edmund Muskie appeared to cry (he denied it) outside of the Manchester Union Leader building on Amherst Street in Manchester.

-- In 1980, Ronald Reagan's line, 'I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,' has been remembered as the moment that gave him the primary win.

-- There was Gary Hart's upset of Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984 and his crash in 1987 after admitting having had an extra-marital affair.

-- In 1992, Bill Clinton battled allegations of extra-marital affairs and draft dodging. But in the end, he and his handlers showed the power of 'spin' when they told the world he was the 'Comeback Kid' despite a second-place finish to the late Paul Tsongas. The media and electorate bought in and decided Clinton had 'won.'

That same year, Patrick J. Buchanan damaged sitting President George H.W. Bush by finishing with nearly 40 percent of the New Hampshire GOP primary vote after leading his strong 'peasants-with-pitchforks' ground organization and relentlessly reminding the voters that Bush had broken his 'Read my lips, no new taxes' pledge of 1988.

-- In 2004, Howard Dean broke new ground by focusing on the Internet to organize and raise money. His infamous post-Iowa caucus 'scream,' however, unraveled all that he had so meticulously constructed, and John Kerry won the primary and the nomination.

-- Four years ago, as Republican John McCain relied on old-fashioned retail campaigning and the editorial endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader to win his second primary, Hillary Clinton wept in Portsmouth the day before the primary, showing her 'human' side, on her way to an upset victory over eventual nominee Barack Obama.

These campaigns were marked by the candidates who were actually in the race. But the campaign that concludes on Tuesday was dominated for its first six months by those who flirted, but in the end, stepped aside.

Trump hit New Hampshire in late April and again in mid-May, riding a black helicopter, a black limousine and the 'birther issue.'

'Today, I'm very proud of myself because I've accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish,' he told a throng of national and regional reporters. After his prodding, President Barack Obama had released his birth certificate.

Three weeks later, Trump drew a big crowd addressing the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, with a classic speech railing against OPEC and China, Republicans and Democrats.

No sooner had the Trump 'meteor' left the New Hampshire skies than the state turned into 'Planet Palin,' at least for a day.

The energetic former vice presidential nominee hit the state with a deafening media buzz on June 2 when her 'One Nation' bus tour rolled into Portsmouth.

That just happened to be the same day Mitt Romney, never Palin's favorite candidate, formally announced his candidacy at Douglas Scamman's farm just a few miles away in Stratham.

Palin mingled at a clambake in the front yard of a Seabrook Beach cottage as scores of reporters and photographers watched from the other side of the fence. The next day, Palin, not Romney, got top billing in the local and national media.

Speculation continued throughout the summer about Palin's candidacy, especially when she returned to the state on Labor Day, telling a crowd of more than 500, 'We're not going to just sit back on the couch and throw stones from afar.'

Yet a month later, on Oct. 5, Palin made it official that she would not run for President. The media refocused again - this time on Christie, who briefly flirted before announcing he would not run. He then backed Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor, having learned his lesson that retail politics matters in New Hampshire after his loss in 2008 to McCain, focused much attention on the state.

Not flashy but business-like, some say too stiff and impersonal, Romney led in New Hampshire polling throughout 2011 and into the first week of 2012.

And he has been steady despite the rise and fall of several other more conservative would-be 'non-Romneys' along the way.

First, last summer, it was Michele Bachmann. Then, in late summer, Rick Perry. Then Herman Cain.

In December, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul rose to challenge Romney. And in the final week, after a surprise virtual tie with Romney in the Iowa caucuses, attention turned to Rick Santorum.

Spiliotes said movement conservatives have been frustrated trying to find a single candidate to coalesce around, yet they do not want to 'compromise' and support the more moderate Romney.

While Romney and moderate Jon Huntsman lead in the number of town halls hosted, there have been very few small-venue house parties, a staple of past primary campaigns.

Dennehy attributes that to the late start, too.

'No campaign, with the exception of Mitt Romney, has a strong town-by-town organization with active supporters,' said Dennehy. 'That's he only way you can get people to have house parties.'

'You can't just quietly put in your time on the ground anymore and that's all,' said Spiliotes. 'If you do, you're going to end up like Gary Johnson or Buddy Roemer.'

Johnson dropped out of the race last week, several days after Roemer complained that although he spent 'more time in New Hampshire than any other campaign, for all that personalized attention, traveling to local GOP committees, holding town halls and meeting with editorial boards, I am still overshadowed by candidates with fewer qualifications to be President.'

Frustrated, Roemer wrote, 'The only conclusion I can draw is that New Hampshire politics is less relevant than getting on a nationally televised debate sponsored by one of the big TV networks.'

Roemer warned, 'It is not a large conceptual leap to imagine a time when states like Florida, which has already tried to usurp New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation tradition, can eventually make the case to the Republican National Committee that retail politics in a small state of 1.3 million people is a quaint, but antiquated tradition.'

Time will tell if Roemer is correct.

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