It's Wooing Time in N.H.: Just Ask Mark Thurston

He gets a campaign serenade from Lamar, eats pastries with Bob

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN policeman Wayne Vetta came home one night recently, his answering machine contained phone messages from two new friends: Republican presidential candidates Bob Dole and Arlen Specter.

Not that Mr. Vetta's political connections are unusual in these parts. Local real estate broker Tom Stawasz has hosted White House wannabe, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm on his weekly radio show. And boat salesman Mark Thurston has been personally serenaded on the piano by ex-governor of Tennessee Lamar Alexander.

It's all part of retail politics, New Hampshire-style. The state's famous primary election is now just 10 months away -- and that means New Hampshire residents are up to their earflaps in Republicans who want to be president.

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In a small state that prides itself on snowdrifts, tax aversion, and Yankee reserve, TV commercials aren't enough. New Hampshirites expect to meet candidates in person. Voters up here have been passing first judgment on presidential candidates since 1952 and are wary of politicos who won't get a little slush on their shoes.

So every week or so, the candidates fly to New Hampshire to win endorsements the old-fashioned way. This involves wearing a wool hat, eating boiled food, and talking about taxes and gun control with someone whose four-wheel drive vehicle is not an affectation.

Take the experience of Mr. Thurston as an example. By day, Thurston is the bookkeeper at his family's marina here in tiny Weir's Beach. By night, he's one of three commissioners in rural Belknap County and vice chairman of the state Republican committee.

These credentials make Thurston an attractive podium ornament for visiting pols -- especially in New Hampshire, where podiums can often be two milk crates turned upside down.

Since his favorite choice, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, decided not to run, Thurston has been courted for an endorsement by every presidential contender except Pat Buchanan.

Indeed, Mr. Buchanan has some catching up to do. Just about anybody with a pulse and a car in this state has met at least one of the candidates in person. When Thurston asked one city councilor what he thought of a candidate, he said: ''I don't know. I've only talked to him three times.''

Earlier this month, Thurston took a trip to Washington that shows what a popular guy he is.

First, he got a private tour of Congress. Then, Thurston went to Mr. Dole's office where he and the Senate majority leader from Kansas ate apricot pastries and discussed punishing Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon for voting against the balanced-budget amendment.

Thurston told ''Bob'' that he would definitely support him if he were on the ticket. Bob laughed. ''You have to have a sense of humor about this whole thing,'' Thurston says.

After their 45-minute chat, Sens. John Warner of Virginia, Trent Lott of Mississippi, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado wandered in and nodded at Thurston politely, with no idea how he got a one-on-one with the majority leader.

When Dole introduced Thurston as a county commissioner from New Hampshire, he says, ''you could almost see everyone in the room thinking 'Ohhhhh, now I get it.' ''

After that, he dropped by unannounced at Sen. Richard Lugar's office to talk strategy. Thurston told him ''what goes over big in Indiana might not cut the mustard in New Hampshire.''

Next stop: the Senate dining room. There, Thurston met presidential hopeful Mr. Specter of Pennsylvania for lunch. As the two ate crab cakes and sliced beef, Sens. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas came over to say hello.

All this attention is not bad for a guy who used to hate politics. Before 1988, he says, the only time he ever watched C-Span was when he was channel surfing. ''It was about as interesting to me as watching paint dry,'' he says. ''Now, I don't think a day goes by when I don't tune in.''

The political bug bit Thurston when he was a state trooper helping out with a motorcade for George Bush. Soon, he was licking envelopes. From there, he helped out in a gubernatorial race and a congressional campaign.

Last fall, Thurston persuaded Mr. Cheney to come to a fund-raiser, and everyone in Washington took notice: It was broadcast on C-Span.

An hour after Cheney announced he would not run, Thurston picked up the phone. It was Senator Gramm of Texas. The next day, Mr. Alexander telephoned. Specter came to his marina to say hello, and two weeks ago, Gen. Colin Powell's exploratory committee called.

When the bells on the marina door jingle, Thurston says he has to go. But before leaving, he sums it up this way: ''I've been graciously welcomed, totally schmoozed, and constantly flattered,'' he says. ''If you're a political animal, that is very satisfying.''

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