New Hampshire, the 'Me First!' State

Jeanne Shaheen, governor of my fine state of New Hampshire, has started flexing her muscles, insisting that the first presidential primary remain in our back yard.

Unfortunately, she's got the leverage to make it happen. Proposing to move the first primary is slightly less popular here than proposing that Vermont annex us for use as a conscripted labor colony.

Yes, here in New Hampshire we want to remain the first state invaded by telephone surveys and craven, would-be presidents. We want Lamar Alexander to caress every inch of New Hampshire granite; we want Pat Buchanan and his pitchfork and Steve Forbes and his millions; we want to hear Al Gore tell us live and bleary-eyed from Dunkin Donuts that he really does care about us. Amazingly, New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith is considering not running for president because his presence might limit the importance of our primary.

Governor's three reasons

Ms. Shaheen gives three reasons for retaining our privilege. First, by having the first primary in New Hampshire, candidates have to go out and meet people; if a larger state had rights to the first-born, candidates wouldn't be able to shake every hand in the state. Second, the system has worked. And last, New Hampshire knows how to run the first primary.

All of these arguments make sense in terms of promoting New Hampshire's self-interest; none make sense in terms of promoting democracy and the selection of a president who, pardon my idealism, should concentrate on the issues that matter to the United States of America, not the Republic of New Hampshire.

Shaheen is right - there is a good reason to have candidates barnstorm in one state. But why New Hampshire? New Hampshire is not a normal state. We are about as racially diverse as your average croquet club, with a population that is only 0.9 percent African-American and 0.6 percent Hispanic. We are the only state without an income or a sales tax, and the editorial page of the Manchester Union Leader thinks Vincent Foster killed Princess Diana and that Janet Reno blocked the truth from coming out.

Perhaps one state should go first, but that state should be chosen by lottery, not by an institutionalized historical fluke.

The second argument, that the system has worked, is circular if not meaningless. Every candidate who has won the presidency did fairly well in New Hampshire. Some made their campaigns come to life here. But that's not surprising considering the momentum that a strong first showing generates.

Shaheen's last argument, that New Hampshire knows how to run the primary, is her best - although it's a dubious distinction. We do know how to run a primary here, or at least we know how to run a primary that maximizes our influence. We know how to get millions of tourism dollars into our state; we know how to get six months of network newscasts live from Main Street in Peterborough.

But even if we have learned how to manage the circus, that doesn't mean we should have the right to it, particularly if national democracy suffers for it.

Super Bowl in Nashua?

Consider if we were to take the state's privilege a bit further. Musicals would have to open on Manchester's WIllow Avenue, not on Broadway; the Super Bowl would be played in Nashua every year; international trade agreements would have to pass the Hanover city council before moving on to Washington, Moscow, Paris, etc.

Candidates who don't do well in New Hampshire have a hard time raising money for future primaries and almost never regain momentum. Is this fair in a state where nonwhite candidates have about as much chance as members of the Chinese Communist Party?

We all enjoy flattery. We like it when our voices are heard. But that doesn't make it right. I suggest the first primary be moved to a randomly selected state or that several different states hold their primaries on the same day. Failing that, I suggest that my state's motto be changed from "Live Free or Die" to "Me First!"

* Nick Thompson is a freelance writer in Goffstown, N.H.

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