Running Into the President in Manchester

By , Ruth Walker is deputy editor of the Monitor.

YOU can tell that it's primary season in New Hampshire when ordinary law-abiding citizens can't go out for lunch on a Saturday afternoon without getting entangled in a presidential motorcade.

That's what happened to us in Manchester the other day.

We were just a couple of blocks from home on the return trip when a young officer of the law signaled us to a halt. A fleet of vehicles, including sheriff's department cars, traveling at a pace suggesting urgency but not emergency, sailed by. The insignia on the door of one car identified it as that of the President of the United States.

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The entourage pulled over just up the street, across from Stark Park, and the officer took advantage of a break in traffic to wave us through. We dropped off the car and returned to the park on foot.

Knots of people were gathered near where the equestrian statue of the eponymous Gen. John Stark, of Revolutionary War fame (well, somewhat fame), stands, and where cannons and cannonballs are ready to repulse any Redcoats that might make their way up the Merrimack River, which the park overlooks.

From this very neighborhood the New York Times had reported on its front page the day before that indifference and indecision were the leading candidates in the primary election.

George Bush was there to call at the residence of the local bishop, across the street.

A light snow was falling as Sam Skinner, the president's chief of staff, emerged from the phalanx of vehicles and crossed the street to mingle with hoi polloi. A murmur wafted through the crowd: He looked vaguely familiar and/or important. Like the others of the presidential party, he was in his suit jacket and in shoes that looked comfortable, but not anything you would slog through the slush in; working for the White House entitles one to some presumption of protection against the elements.

The local folks gathered around in their parkas and duck boots. Mr. Skinner stuck out his hand to introduce himself - m Sam to a small boy, but the latter's hand was lost inside the immense sleeve of his jacket, and so Skinner's hand went back into his pocket.

He expressed hope that "all the tax lobbies scrounging for support" would be properly brushed back when an economic recovery plan is worked out next month.

He recommended to all within earshot that anyone concerned about the escalating costs of government focus on the growth of congressional staffs over the years. The Congress-bashing seemed to be reflexive; he trotted out his comments during a pause in the program the way a city jogger runs in place while forced to pause at a traffic light.

And as reflexive as his Congress-bashing was an off-duty reporter's impulse to take notes.

A woman saw this and walked over to give a sound bite. "They do too good a job protecting him," she said, obviously referring to the president. "He doesn't get to meet the people."

In the national media event that is the presidential campaign, even the extras have learned their lines.

The old joke about the grizzled New Hampshirite who hasn't decided whom to support in the presidential primary because he hasn't met all the candidates yet has been updated: In this year's version, he hasn't decided because he has met them all only five times.

Any New Hampshirite, in the southern part of the state, at least, with an ounce of civic-mindedness or even just plain curiosity should find it no harder to see in person most of the major presidential candidates than it is to check out the 1992 model cars.

This has prompted complaints that the Granite State wields inappropriate influence in presidential elections.

But the New Hampshire primary shouldn't be thought of as a quirky, unrepresentative poll in a quirky, unrepresentative part of the country; think of it as an extended focus group.

Yes, it's a media event, but it is also a great leveler: It is a test of how a candidate relates person to person; it must be won vote by vote. All a president's limos, and all a president's men, will not help if their man has lost touch with the electorate.

In New Hampshire a low-budget candidate can test out his message and know that if he wins, money will follow. At no other point in the campaign will he be less disadvantaged against an incumbent or other well-financed opponent.

In this year's campaign, President Bush had lots of able surrogates: his wife, Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife, among others. But ultimately he had to leave Washington to make his own pitch to the people, as he did four years ago, when, looking the underdog, he pleaded for New Hampshire Republicans to support him, "warts and all."

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