The roads to New Hampshire open earlier and earlier

Candidates start wooing voters even before they're officially candidates

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The Gazette, Monday, July 9, 2007

The American morning begins in Maine, but presidential destinies in the United States begin next door in New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

It's the law. A 1977 state law requires that New Hampshire hold its primary at least a week before any other state runs "a similar" presidential contest.

But Iowa is always a week before, isn't it? That's different. Those are caucuses, counting heads in a room, not to be confused with a primary.

That's their story in New Hampshire, and they're sticking to it. And they're pretty sticky about it. Any number of states have tried to jump ahead of them, and each time New Hampshire moves up its primary. It was in March in 1968, February in 1992, January in 2004. If need be, they will move it right out of election year, into this year.

It's not just politics. It's a booming cottage industry. All roads lead to New Hampshire, for candidates, their media buys and unhappy reporters. And for many would-be presidents, those roads lead to New Hampshire, even before he (or she) forms an exploratory committee.

The week before last, big Fred Thompson was in Bedford, N.H., for an invitation-only cocktail with Republicans. He wasn't there to promote the new season of Law and Order, in which he stars as the district attorney. So, he's an actor. But so was Ronald Reagan, in a role the Republicans have been trying to recreate since he left the presidential stage in 1989.

Besides, long before he was an actor, Thompson was a Washington hand. As minority counsel to the Watergate committee in 1973, he discovered the Nixon tapes in a deposition of White House administrator Alexander Butterfield. Thompson was Howard Baker's man from Tennessee, and it doesn't come more inside-the-Beltway than that. He also served a term in the Senate in the 1990s, campaigning in Tennessee in a pickup truck.

Thompson could be a serious contender because Republicans don't like the look of all the other white guys - and they are all white guys - in the race.

John McCain? The man who humbled Dubya with his straight talk candidacy in New Hampshire in 2000, now looks too old, and too tied to the discredited Iraq adventure of the Bush White House.

Mitt Romney? Too boring. He has a story line, as a successful Republican governor of Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the union, and previously as the CEO who engineered a turnaround of the organizing committee for the Winter Olympic Games of Salt Lake City. The Boston Globe recently ran a massive seven-part series on his life. I read the whole thing, and at the end of it still couldn't think of a single reason to vote for him.

Rudy Giuliani? He had two successful terms as mayor of New York, and was the man of the hour on 9/11. But he's on his third wife, and his own kids are barely on speaking terms with him.

These four are the first tier of candidates on the Republican side. The others are simply taking up space and time in TV debates.

Similarly, the Democrats have a crowded field, but a first tier of only three - Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

It gave everyone pause when Obama raised $31 million in the second quarter, more than Clinton and Edwards combined, and more than twice as much as Romney and Giuliani, the leading Republican fund-raisers.

While Clinton has name recognition, and a guy named Bill going for her, she also has name recognition, and a guy named Bill, going against her. She is simply all too familiar, and remains a polarizing presence.

Obama is an electrifying figure, and while his resume might still be thin, his story is a compelling one. The first time he went to New Hampshire, where crowds are measured in the dozens, he drew several thousand people. He's new, he's different, and even while many worry for his safety, he represents hope in a time for change.

New Hampshire is a very unrepresentative state, only 1.2 million people, and 95 per cent white. That doesn't diminish its importance. Since 1952, only Bill Clinton and Dubya have lost here and gone on to win the White House. Which means the voters of New Hampshire have chosen a president in 12 of the last 14 elections.

That's a pretty high batting average in any league.

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