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New Hampshire primary: why the 2012 campaign is different

A host of nationally televised presidential debates has left some New Hampshire voters hungering for closer – and more substantive – contact with the candidates.

By Staff writer / December 19, 2011

Republican presidential candidates former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (l.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich laughed during their Lincoln-Douglas-style debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., on Dec. 12.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

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Manchester, N.H.

This is not shaping up to be a quintessential New Hampshire presidential primary.

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Granite State voters take seriously their primary's first-in-the-nation status, knowing it can give the top candidates a surge of momentum in state contests to follow. By way of due diligence, they like to "kick the tires" of the candidates, hobnobbing with them at diners and tossing out unpredictable questions at town-hall meetings.

But this time New Hampshire may not be quite the proving ground it usually is. A host of nationally televised presidential debates and the use of social media appear to have usurped some of the traditional tire-kicking, leaving some voters here hungering for closer – and more substantive – contact with the candidates.

"There's much less opportunity to have small-group conversations with candidates" than in years past, says Elizabeth Hengen of Concord, N.H., an independent voter who is still weighing her choices. "The huge propensity for [large, multicandidate] debates has taken away the candidates' ability and time to circulate around."

Ms. Hengen attended a recent forum at St. Anselm College here to listen to Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman Jr. detail their positions on foreign policy – and it was exactly the substantive discussion she'd been looking for. Sitting side by side, the two men expounded for a full 90 minutes on everything from conflicts in the Middle East to China as an evolving world power.

"This forum is very refreshing.... It gave the time to delve far below the usual sound bite," she said.

Still, when New Hampshirites go to the polls on Jan. 10, it is likely that many will have collected their information about the candidates in a more secondhand fashion than has been customary.

"The media primary has surpassed Iowa or New Hampshire this year – where voters are really getting their information from the Internet and from the [televised] debates in a way that they never have before," says Jennifer Donahue, a public policy fellow at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College in Washington.

That's not to say that the winner here (and perhaps even second- or third-place candidates) won't get a "bump" as they head into states that come next on the GOP primary calendar.

Moreover, what happens in New Hampshire – which has shifted since the early 1990s from "red state" to "swing state" – may give clues not only to GOP primary voters' proclivities, but also, and perhaps more important, to the GOP candidates' potential strength in the race against President Obama.

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