Glen, N.H. It sure is quiet up here, so still that you can almost hear the snow fall.
In the coffeehouses and restaurants there’s scant talk of politics. There’s hardly a bumper sticker in sight, and only a handful of lawn signs. No breathless activists wearing buttons or stickers. No indefatigable canvassers walking the neighborhoods. In fact, it’s easier to find a leaflet for Story Land, a well-loved amusement park that closed for the season Oct. 8, than for any of the contenders in the New Hampshire primary, which occurs Jan. 10.
Drive around Carroll County, the only county in New England that Barry Goldwater carried in 1964, and you’ll find almost no evidence that the first primary of the political season is but five weeks away. The television stations are starting to carry advertising, to be sure, but the urgency is for the shopping rush of the December holidays, not the political passions of the January primary. Republicans here and around the country are fervent in their desire to defeat Barack Obama, but they’re not all that worked up for any of the GOP candidates.
Washington has its budget deficit. New Hampshire has a motivation deficit.
That’s in part because none of the candidates inspires real enthusiasm. The rocky roadsides here are littered with candidacies that never were: Rudolph Giuliani, Haley Barbour, Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush. For months, activists waited for one or more of them to set their cap for the nomination, infusing each with the qualities the real Republican field lacked, which is to say the ability to ignite the ardor and devotion Obama inspired in 2008, forgetting of course that Obama did not win the primary here.
Another explanation for the motivation deficit: the lack of a narrative to the 2012 presidential campaign — so far.
Four years ago, there was the apparent death and then the dramatic revivification of John McCain, a storyline that had resonance here, where McCain was remembered for his 19-point victory over George W. Bush in 2000. The Arizona senator and Vietnam war hero went on to win the nomination.
Gingrich rises from the dead
Now, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, pronounced dead by all the smart people only six months ago, is surging and even has a Manchester Union Leader endorsement in his pocket. This looks for all the world like a second revivification, though history doesn’t always repeat itself with such poetry and symmetry. A candidacy needs a better rationale than the notion that it is treading a well-worn path, particularly in a state that claims a poet who argues that roads not taken make all the difference.
That same erstwhile poet-chicken farmer, in a verse titled “New Hampshire,” once called these environs “a most restful state,” which it is right now, though “the paper,” as the Union Leader is often called, has stirred things up a bit, the way it did in the old days, when William Loeb was publisher. His successor once removed, Joseph W. McQuaid, said the paper’s search “for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job,” led it to Gingrich.
No subject, save the weather and maybe the Red Sox, has been debated here more fervently than the influence of the paper, which counts among its endorsed candidates Robert A. Taft (1952), John Ashbrook (1972), Pete du Pont (1988) and Steve Forbes (2000). Only twice, in 1968 (Richard M. Nixon) and 1980 (Ronald Reagan), did the paper’s choice prevail. And already the supporters of Mitt Romney — whose father, Gov. George Romney of Michigan, was derided as “Chihuahua George” on the front page of the paper nearly a half-century ago — are offering the theory that independents and moderates will find the Union Leader’s imprimatur on the Gingrich candidacy an odious mark.
It is true that the new threat to Romney posed by Gingrich makes this a more interesting and, perhaps, more vital contest than it might otherwise have been if a former governor of a neighboring state was holding a steady if not impressive lead with no apparent challenger. Now Romney’s forces will have to work hard to win and, if they do, they will have earned a victory more significant than simply a perfunctory buss to the cheeks from their cousins down the road. And, of course, the good neighbor policy doesn’t always work here, as the supporters of Edmund S. Muskie of Maine learned in 1972.
On the surface, there should be enormous interest in this race. It’s the first time in 16 years that the Republican race stands alone for the attention of New Hampshire voters, who include independents, a potentially important force.
Focus on conservatism
Though this state (and county) voted for Obama in 2008, the emphasis in this primary will be on conservative positions and values. A generation ago it was not uncommon even for Democrats here to distribute yard signs that pronounced their candidate as “honest, experienced, conservative,” the implication being that the three words were synonymous with virtue.
That emphasis on conservatism is back, even for Romney, who until midway through his single term as governor was resolutely moderate, if not a tad liberal.
Today Romney says he wouldn’t have undertaken one of his father’s signature battles in Lansing, the fight for a state income tax. In those days, the elder Romney was considered a formidable challenger to Goldwater, whom he eventually refused to endorse in 1964. In recently released taped musings, Jacqueline Kennedy says of her husband: “He was nervous about Romney.”
Now it’s conservatives who are nervous about a different Romney, which is why Gingrich, who is also muscling up in right-leaning South Carolina, the next battle, went out of his way last week to say he was “a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney.”
For all but the supporters of Ron Paul, who is a lot more conservative than either of them, the motivation gap is a palpable presence in this race. Voters have ample reason to ignore the polls at this stage of the season, but this single finding, in the latest Pew poll, bears watching as the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary draw near: The only major candidate whose favorable ratings outweigh his unfavorable ratings isn’t on the Republican ballot here. He is Barack Obama.