Conway, N.H. Four years ago this week, the old Kennett High School gym was rocking. The place was jammed, the crowd was on its feet, and all the way down Main Street, well past the Conway Cafe, the cars lined Route 16. Sen. Barack Obama brought out one of the largest political gatherings in the history of Carroll County — and then his entourage moved west, to Hanover, where thousands of Dartmouth students filled the space between Rockefeller Center and Hitchcock Hall. Something big was happening.
Last week, the main thing in presidential politics here in New Hampshire, site of the first primary, was the meet-and-greet former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman held at Jesse’s Restaurant in Lebanon, a log cabin-style steakhouse holding its popular crab fest this month. No presidential candidate at the Merrimack Republican Town Committee meeting, no White House wannabe at the Atkinson Republican Committee meeting. In any other political season could the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women hold a lilac luncheon — this year’s event was scheduled for this weekend in Concord — without a presidential candidate showing up?
A few stirrings
There will be a few stirrings this week — Huntsman at a house party in Durham, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia at the Seacoast Republican Women’s breakfast Thursday. But that’s about it — nothing compared to the level of activity four years ago, when the campaign was raging like a North Country fireplace on a cold night.
The story of the struggle for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 is the story of the dog that isn’t barking — not here, nor in Iowa, site of the first presidential caucuses and where the Republican governor, Terry Branstad, last week all but begged GOP candidates to come to his state, build organizations ... and spend money.
Just how slowly is this campaign opening? Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who announced his candidacy on Sunday, formed an exploratory committee on March 21. At that point in the 2008 election cycle, 20 candidates of both parties had done so or had made clear they would. The biggest news so far this year has been about candidates dropping out: Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Donald Trump.
Short is better?
Not that we should be complaining. For years, Americans considered their campaign seasons too long and believed that money and attention spent a year before an election were money and attention wasted.
Look a few miles north to Canada, where the election season began March 26 and ended May 2 — and in that period an entire G-8 nation came to a decisive resolution of its political future. Maybe we should just enjoy the silence, pack up the fishing gear, repair to Big Diamond Pond for lake trout or the First and Second Connecticut Lakes for landlocked salmon and look skyward to watch Saturn move through Virgo as Gemini sinks below the western horizon.
There are lots of reasons the public part of this year’s campaign — quiet organizing has been going on for some time — is starting late.
One of them is Fox News, which employed five of the potential contenders, none of whom was particularly eager to relinquish the pay that went with being a network commentator.
Another is voter fatigue, a national malady particularly virulent here. In New Hampshire, voters felt the energy of the Obama campaign and gave him a plurality of 10 percentage points, then two years later decisively swung the other way, electing a Republican senator and Republicans to both House seats while putting Republicans in charge of both chambers of the state legislature by substantial margins.
The most active candidate so far may be former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who has the advantage of familiarity from the 2008 campaign and of his status as a Massachusetts neighbor, three of whom (John F. Kennedy in 1960, Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 and John F. Kerry in 2004) won Democratic nominations. Romney has made few campaign appearances, but he did deliver a health care speech and has been building a campaign team and financial base — raising an astonishing $10.25 million in a single day last week.
Donors hold back
The effects of this late public start are clear. Many of the big-money people in the GOP are holding back. Ordinarily donors wait to see how a race develops — who’s hot, who’s not, and who is talking their language — but right now nobody’s hot and, from the point of view at least of conventional Republicans, nobody’s talking their language.
The danger, of course, is that the Republicans are unilaterally disarmed while Democrats talk of raising as much as $1 billion for Obama’s re-election campaign. But if Romney raises $40 million in this quarter alone, as his team suggests he could, he would put enormous financial pressure on late entrants, such as Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who might need to raise $1 million a week.
That kind of prodigious financial power assured Gov. George W. Bush of Texas the Republican nomination in 2000. His only real competition came from Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who won the New Hampshire primary but lost his momentum in South Carolina.
The question is whether the financial dominance of Romney and the relative weakness of the other contenders — not counting Daniels, who might yet enter the fray — combined with the slow start, might amplify the Republicans’ tendency to nominate someone who, like Richard M. Nixon in 1968, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996 and McCain in 2008, is an established party figure and has run before. For Romney, a late-starting campaign might not be merely a characteristic of the race. It may be a key strategic element of it.