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May 03. 2011 12:23PM

1972: Nixon's last campaign

The number of Presidential primaries increased from 15 in 1968 to 21 in 1972. Reforms within the national Democratic Party meant far more of the delegates would be chosen in the fire and turmoil of the primaries. The smoke-filled rooms in which some national conventions' choices were made would become a thing of the past.

With more states selecting convention delegates in primary elections, some began to look enviously at New Hampshire's prominent role as the traditional first primary. Florida moved its primary from the first Tuesday in May (where it had been since 1944) to the second Tuesday in March, New Hampshire's Town Meeting day.

In order to remain first, the Granite State had to move its vote up one week — to the first Tuesday in March.

Richard Nixon's final presidential campaign was in 1972. That campaign began with a brief August 1971 trip to Manchester and Nashua, not long after announcing a new economic policy for the nation and his decision to visit China. The local campaign closed with his third victory in the initial primary, a win that would move him toward his third GOP presidential nomination and his second term in the White House. Nixon defeated the Democratic nominee, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, by almost 18 million votes.

Yet this campaign was different. Nixon did not receive the editorial support of William Loeb and his Manchester Union Leader; the publisher denounced Nixon's journey to China as "immoral, indecent, insane and fraught with danger." In the end such attacks made little difference, for the President easily was able to dispatch a challenge from two members of the U.S. House, liberal Californian Paul McCloskey, who received 19.8 percent, and conservative John Ashbrook of Ohio, with 9.7 percent. Even without the support of his long-time ally Loeb, who supported Ashbrook, Nixon tallied 67.6 percent and swept the entire delegate slate.

The returns from the 1972 primary also made a happy man of Spiro Agnew. The vice president received a record-setting 45,524 write-in votes for vice president on the GOP ballot, a demonstration of popularity that helped keep secure his plate on the ticket.

There had been speculation President Nixon was considering replacing the former governor of Maryland with Texan John Connally, but such an idea never was advanced.

Yet in the next New Hampshire primary, Vice President Agnew would not be on the ballot seeking the top spot. He was forced to resign his office on October 10, 1973 after pleading nolo contenders to charges of income tax evasion.

As was the case a quadrennium before, the real fireworks were among the Democrats. Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, who had run for vice president with Hubert Humphrey in 1968, had expectations that the Granite State primary would provide the some lift-off it had given another Catholic and Democratic Now England senator a dozen years before John Kennedy.

Senator Muskie had visited the state often. When Senator McIntyre, the sole Democrat holding major office, announced his support of Muskie in December of 1971 he listed the years that Muskie had taken the time to assist New Hampshire's Democrats: "Many lean, thankless years, many times before there could have been any political advantage to him, Ed Muskie labored in our state unselfishly to help build a Democratic Party all New Hampshire could be proud of."

Muskie, then serving his third term in the Senate, held a commanding lead in the early polls. One survey in the spring of 1971 indicated that of those planning to vote in the Democratic primary Muskie hold a lead of 63 percentage points over Senator McGovern.

On Monday, January 3, 1972, Muskie returned to his native state to film an eight-minute address announcing his candidacy. The film was aired nationally the following night, usurping the final 10 minutes of the Glen Campbell "Good Time Hour." It was described by one reporter as a speech that "reflected the man. There were no startling or even original ideas, and not much verve or incandescence. But it was honest and straightforward...Muskie delivered them with great integrity and conviction, without a trace of a smile."

Senator McGovern was accorded little chance of scoring a breakthrough. Yet before the votes were tabulated, he had out-organized and out-worked Muskie, resulting in a stronger-than-expected performance at the polls.

McGovern was as superior to Muskie on the hustings, as Rockefeller had been to Goldwater. He seemed to relish the ordeal of pressing the flesh (he would devote 24 days to the first primary, Muskie only 13).

Day after day the pattern was much the same — factory shift lines, high schools and colleges, interviews with reporters, handshaking tours of shopping centers and along main streets, and of course the staple of every New Hampshire test — the living room "kaffee klatsch."

Just as with Eugene McCarthy, an elaborate organizational structure was pieced together by McGovern's liberal loyalists to identify potential and real support, to attract the undecided citizens and make sure the South Dakotan's voters turned out on March 7.

The campaign went badly for Muskie, who was repeatedly hit with editorial blasts from the Union Leader. As he slipped in the polls, an attempt was made to regain the initiative. To the dismay of his local advisors, his campaign leadership decided to hold a rally in front of the Union Leader on the morning of Saturday, February 26. Muskie, who was upset about the newspaper's reprinting of a Newsweek account that placed his wife in an unfavorable light, planned to respond to some of the attacks of the newspaper.

Muskie brought his campaign, and its entourage of local and national reporters, to downtown Manchester that fateful day. He spoke from the back of a flatbed truck during a snowstorm. David Broder wrote the following for The Washington Post: "With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion, Senator Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) stood in the snow outside the Manchester Union Leader this morning and accused its publisher of making vicious attacks on him and his wife, Jane...In defending his wife, Muskie broke down three times in as many minutes — uttering a few words and then standing silent in the near blizzard, rubbing at his face, his shoulders heaving, while he attempted to regain his composure sufficiently to speak."

Other accounts of the incident failed to portray Muskie as quite the same broken figure Broder and some others wrote about, and the debate has never ended as to whether or not the Maine senator in fact did weep. The scene did indicate that the reserved and aloof former governor of the Pine Tree State was not holding up well under the strain of campaigning.

Regarding the role of the state's largest newspaper in that election, Maria Carrier, the Muskie state coordinator, formerly a resident of Manchester and now of Washington, D.C., commented, "The Union Leader decided to leave him (McGovern) alone. They wanted him to be the nominee. Therefore they gave him an open field. They allowed him to define himself in his own terms and they would not define him. That was a big advantage. They (the McGovern backers) had the organization and they went out and did the grass-roots work. There was nobody to argue with whatever that picture was they were drawing."

By carefully poor-mouthing McGovern's prospects, his staff was able to convince reporters covering the election that the South Dakota senator deserved a favorable handicap in interpreting the election results, since he was not from a neighboring state, had not run for vice president in 1968, and the party leadership had not flocked to McGovern's banner.

Press accounts before the primary suggested that only a 25 percent benchmark had to be achieved for McGovern in order to claim a "moral victory," a claim that would be greatly strengthened if Muskie could not reach the 50 percent benchmark established for him.

That 50 percent standard is often blamed on Carrier, who late in February let slip an unguarded remark to three reporters that she would "shoot myself" if the Maine senator did not receive at least half the vote.

Carrier's remark placed the figure in a dramatic context yet the press already had been using it for months. In the July 24, 1971 edition of The New York Times, reporter R.W. Apple had assessed the prospects of the major Democratic contender's and Muskie was accorded the title of front-runner for three reasons: he was the best known, he was firmly in the ideological center of his party, and he projected "an impression of integrity and calm."

Even before Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, Senator Henry Jackson or Governor George Wallace had revealed their political plans, Apple proclaimed, "New Hampshire, where Mr. Muskie must get at least half the vote to look good, is obviously his first hurdle."

Muskie won the primary with 41,235 votes to McGovern's 33,007. But since it was only 46.4 percent of the total and McGovern's was 37.1 percent, it was a shallow win for the front runner. Muskie won every county except Carroll, Grafton and Merrimack, yet his vote in Hillsborough County, the heart of the Democratic Party, was only 43.2 percent. Los Angeles Mayor Samuel Yorty, who had been endorsed by the Union Leader, tallied just 6.1 percent of the vote; his total in populous Hillsborough County was his high mark in the state — 9.9 percent.

Muskie also won all cities save for Concord and Lebanon, yet the margin of his win was lowest in Manchester, where his 37.6 percent was just 510 more votes than McGovern's total and well below the 69.8 percent he received in Somersworth (which borders Maine), the 64.7 percent in Berlin and even the 58.3 percent in the state's second largest city — Nashua.

McGovern had shaken and bruised Muskie. His stronger-than-expected showing helped provide the necessary push toward his eventual capture of the nomination in Miami in July. Muskie would withdraw as an active candidate on April 27, two days after finishing fourth in the Pennsylvania primary.


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