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May 03. 2011 12:24PM

1976: A national stage for Carter

The list of politicians who have stumbled in the New Hampshire primary is far longer than the roster of those who have succeeded. The returns on February 24, 1976, gave few candidates reason to celebrate, but once again a winner here — in this case Jimmy Carter of Georgia — went on to become President.

As a one-term governor from 1971 to 1975, by traditional standards Carter had little chance of becoming a serious contender for the nomination. But when David Brinkley of NBC posed the question, "Can a Georgia peanut farmer find happiness in a cold, Northern state where you couldn't raise a pound of peanuts to save your life?", an affirmative answer was given by 23,373 New Hampshire Democrats.

The nature of the primary system, with all the hoopla and hucksterism that surrounds these contests, plus the wear and tear on the candidates and voters alike, is the constant subject of argument. Are handshaking contests and multi-million dollar media blitzes the best way to nominate the standard-bearers of the two major political parties?

The answer is that for now it is the only way to nominate the general election candidates.

When Carter first ventured to this state as a declared candidate in February 1975, he planned to wage a limited effort — enough to make a respectable showing, but not an all-out drive. But after the initial foray, the decision was made to allot more time and resources to the Granite State. New Hampshire had seemed quite receptive to Carter's low-key manner, his charm and the different approach he brought to the issues confronting the nation.

Carter had been the chief executive of a Southern state, not a federal legislator, and the anti-Washington tone of his responses to public policy questions reflected that background. Carter was not a lawyer, but a farmer with a background of military service and that unusual past for a politician seemed to be significant, for as one of his supporters (himself a attorney) put it: "I was tired of lawyers running for major office, and I thought the nation was too — and it might be ready for a good, solid businessman."

Carter brought to the contest a tenacity unmatched by the four other major Democratic hopefuls who entered the primary — U.S. Representative Morris Udall of Arizona, U.S. Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris and a former ambassador to France, Sargent Shriver.

Day after day, Carter hustled about the state, almost always on time, greeting people with his soon-to-be-famous grin. One of the leaders of the campaign for Udall, who finished a close second, commented on the pace Carter established: "He campaigned for a year as though it was the lost six weeks of the campaign. And that made him impossible to beat."

Through the years, successful primary candidates often have been aided a great deal by their wives. Nancy Kefauver, Pat Nixon, Abigail McCarthy and Eleanor McGovern all made substantial contributions to the campaign for their husbands in the Granite State.

But none had the impact of Rosalynn Carter. She maintained a pace almost as exhausting as of her husband and generally followed a separate schedule, doubling their contact with voters.

State representative Mary Chambers of Hanover said of Mrs. Carter's campaign abilities: "She's a very charming person. In many instances she was better at getting votes for him than he was for himself. It was enchanting to watch her — she's the perfect stumper."

By 1976 it was obvious no presidential aspirant could afford to bypass the kickoff primary. There was one greater risk than running here and losing: not to compete at all — a lesson Senator Henry Jackson of Washington learned the hard way in both 1972 and 1976. Prior to both elections, Jackson's political operatives worried for months about entering the primary. Both times they determined that Jackson's presidential hopes would be better served by not bothering with cranky New Hampshire. By choosing to stay out in 1972 Jackson failed to capitalize on the decline in support for Senator Muskie, support that helped make George McGovern a serious contender and finally the nominee. Four years later, Jackson's absence guaranteed Jimmy Carter unchallenged access to moderate-to-conservative Democrats, a group to whom Jackson would have had some appeal. Morris Udall, meanwhile, had to compete with Bayh, Harris and Shriver for the moderate-to-liberal constituency.

Had Senator Jackson entered the primary, Udall's loss to Carter by just 4,663 votes might not have happened. Carter managed to win seven of the 10 counties — his top vote was in Coos with 43.9 percent, his poorest in Cheshire with 21.4 percent. Udall won the counties of Carroll, Cheshire and Grafton. Yet the votes for Bayh (15.3 percent), Harris (10.9 percent) and Shriver (8.3 percent) carried a meaning well explained by one New Hampshire activist: "if one less liberal had run here, or if a conservative such as Scoop Jackson had entered, Mo Udall and not Jimmy Carter would have had the cover stories on Newsweek and Time shortly afterward, and the outcome at the convention might well not have been the same."

President Nixon had been forced to resign on August 9, 1974. His successor, former House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, had become vice president replacing the disgraced Spiro Agnew.

The 1976 decision would feature a double bill. The new president, Gerald Ford, would face his first election match outside his old 5th Congressional District in Michigan. The challenger was a tough one: a former movie actor and two-term governor (1967-1975) of the nation's largest state, California's Ronald Reagan.

Reagan announced in November 1975 and was generally believed to have out-organized Ford in the late fall and early winter. He also received the endorsements of second-term Governor Meldrim Thomson as well as the editorial blessing of the Union Leader.

With a mediagenic presence and polished speaking talent, Reagan drew sizable crowds as he traveled through the 10 counties for 19 days of stumping that winter, and his appearances drew considerable media attention.

The 1976 primary was supposed to be the first since 1952 with nothing to do with Richard Nixon — or so many thought. Yet during the final weekend before the February 24 vote in an extremely close Ford-Reagan race, the former President left on another journey to China. Some Ford advisors believed the timing of the trip was a deliberate ploy to damage his successor and set in motion a nomination deadlock that would lead to the eventual selection of Nixon favorite John Connally, who although then a Democrat had served as Nixon's treasury secretary from 1970 to 1972.

After two trips to the state, President Ford won a narrow victory — 55,156 to 53,569 - the closest vote in the history of the primary and a remarkable indicator of just how close the national race between these two men would be. His organizational drive led by California political consultant Stuart Spencer received much credit for the President's victory.

Much of the blame for the narrow Reagan defeat was laid at the door of his proposal to cut $90 billion from the federal budget to reduce taxes, decrease the federal deficit, and also to make a down payment on the national debt. This proposal, along with a suggestion to consider a plan to invest Social Security funds in the stock market, kept Reagan on the defensive throughout the primary. Former governor Walter Peterson, a Ford delegate, said of the $90 billion plan that it "was attacked at just the right time. Doubt was cost on that proposal. There was also doubt as to whether he (Reagan) was really the sensible kind of person the country ought to have."

Reagan's failure to exploit public disapproval of the Panama Canal treaties (something he attacked with great frequency in later primaries), was considered another reason for the narrow loss. One Ford staffer, when asked if their campaign was wary of the Panama Canal issue, acknowledged it had shown up in the polling data as a problem for Ford. "We were scared to death of the issue in New Hampshire. The Reagan people blew it by not exploiting it."

The President carried six of the 10 counties against Reagan and his strongest vote was in Cheshire County, 61.8 percent; his worst in Coos County, 41.6 percent. Ford managed to win the cities by 2,312, this providing his margin of victory. Ford's most decisive vote was in Portsmouth, 76.2 percent; his weakest in Manchester, only 33.3 percent. Ford carried nine out of the 13 cities.

The narrow victory had ramifications well beyond the tiny number of votes tabulated and delegates allotted. (Ford won 18 of the 21 delegates). Later that year, John Sears, Reagan's national campaign manager, told a Harvard University Institute of Politics seminar: "The week before the New Hampshire primary, our polling showed us ahead in Florida. Then on the Saturday after the New Hampshire primary, the poll showed us 18 points down, which gives you some idea of what momentum, or lack of it, can do."

For only the second time, 1960 being the first, both winners went on to win the nomination. Once both Carter and Ford were selected as standard-bearers, New Hampshire's record of always having one of the primary winners go on to win the presidency in the fall was sure to remain secure.

Carter, by carrying every Southern state except Virginia, won the White House by 1.68 million votes. President Ford did carry New Hampshire by 38,300 votes and won every other New England state with the exception of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.


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