When Eugene McCarthy is at his essayist's desk rather than politician's platform he sees New Hampshire in terms of porcupines and poets. When he talks of why the state is unpredictable, the candidate who almost defeated President Johnson there in 1968 knows whereof he speaks. Herewith his reflections on New Hampshire now.
Straw votes are being taken. Endorsements sought and given. But all these are preliminary and secondary to the primaries, the first of which will be held in New Hampshire early in 1984. The voice of that primary is already being heard in the land. Presidential candidates, most of them, have already made tentative visits to that state and have played around its edges in Maine and in Massachusetts, hoping to be noticed. They are waiting, as they must, for the opening of the New Hampshire primary season with eagerness and some fear and trepidation.
The New Hampshire primary is a high-risk venture for presidential candidates. More candidates lose than win.
Moreover, a candidate can win the primary and be declared the loser. Or he can lose or run behind another candidate and be declared the winner. A candidate can go into that primary as a well-known and promising candidate, and be lost forever, as in the case of George Romney in 1968. He can go in relatively unknown and emerge as a political force. The important thing, in New Hampshire primaries, is not beating your opponents but beating the projections of the political pollsters.
The results of the New Hampshire primary are notoriously unpredictable. This unpredictability is understandable, if one has some understanding of the character of the state and of its people.
Candidates entering the New Hampshire primary should know, first of all, that New Hampshire is not a simple state. Like Gaul, it is divided into three parts.
One part, the southeast, is essentially like Massachusetts, with similar towns and abandoned textile mills.
Northeastern New Hampshire, beyond the White Mountains, is like Maine, a land of lakes, of forests of pine, balsam, cedar, poplar, and birch, essentially pulpwood. The smell of sulfur hangs over the paper mill towns.
Western New Hampshire is like Vermont, a land of hills, high ones, and low mountains, of sheltered farms and near-perfect towns and villages, like Peterborough, Claremont, Lebanon, Antrim, and Still Corners.
The difference between New Hampshire and its neighboring states is indicated, according to the poet John Ciardi, in the manner in which the porcupine is treated in each state. As far as Ciardi goes, Massachusetts has no position on the porcupine. Maine protects it. Vermont pays a bounty on its nose, and New Hampshire on its ears.
New Hampshire is a careful state. Law and order is not a serious problem. Its government finances itself largely with taxes on the vices or near-vices of visitors from other states. New Hampshire taxes beer and hard liquor, tobacco, betting on horses. It taxes hotel rooms and restaurant meals, and runs, twice a year, a state-administered lottery. Skiing is for outsiders. Ice hockey for natives.
New Hampshire, candidates should remember, is a modest state, not known for exorbitant claims, or tall stories. It claims to have the highest mountain, Mt. Washington, among the lowest mountains of the country. Its state tree is the simple, without any adjective, birch.
New Hampshire is always on guard. It does not trust anyone with much power. One of the smallest states in the union, it has the largest number of members in its Legislature of all the states in the Union. Candidates who promise too much are not likely to do well in New Hampshire.
Most New Hampshire people can do at least two things. Signs along the road indicate such combined talents as digging and cabinetmaking - one job for summer , one for winter. Or, in the case of women - alterations and preserves.
Entrance into the New Hampshire primary is a little safer than it once was, when William Loeb was waiting at the border with insults for anyone he disapproved. But the Union Leader, even without him, is not restrained in its criticism of those whom it does not favor.
More important for a New Hampshire campaign than a good press man, or an advance man, is a winter driver, experienced and skilled in driving in snow and on ice. A candidate should be alert. What he takes for a groundswell may be no more than a February frost heave.
Finally, a candidate should study what Robert Frost wrote about that state in a poem called ''New Hampshire.'' Just specimen is all New Hampshire has One each of everything as in a showcase Which naturally she doesn't care to sell. Apples, New Hampshire has them, but unsprayed With no suspicion in stem end, or blossom end Of vitriol or arsenate of lead And so good for anything but cider. She's one of the two best states in the Union. Vermont's the other. . . .