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Why the New Hampshire primary is thriving, despite dire warnings

New Hampshire Republicans – and Sen. Lindsey Graham – warn that Fox News's debate rule is ruining the state's primary, but the evidence suggests otherwise. 

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    John Kasich kisses 10-week-old Mia Barnes on Main Street in Newmarket, N.H. in July
    Linda Feldmann
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John Kasich stops mid-sentence. The governor of Ohio – and soon-to-be presidential candidate – is walking down the main street of Newmarket, N.H., looking for voters’ hands to shake, and before him is the perfect campaign prop: a baby in a pram.

In a flash, Governor Kasich is holding 10-week-old Mia Barnes and kissing her for the cameras, a moment sure to wind up in a campaign video – or at least on a news site.

“I think that’s his first baby of the campaign,” says a member of Kasich’s entourage.

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Kissing babies is as old as politics itself. And here in New Hampshire, home of the first presidential primary, many of the traditions still hold – visits to Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett, drinking lemonade with voters in backyards and living rooms, voters who have to meet each candidate at least twice before deciding whom to back, midnight returns from Dixville Notch.

Now, add selfies to the list. Some candidates grin and bear them. But with Kasich, it was he who asked the lady from the Thai restaurant in Newmarket  if she wanted a selfie. None of this “stop the selfies” business, as candidate Ben Carson wrote recently, calling them “narcissistic” (although he still goes along with voters who want them).

But the ground is shifting here in the Granite State, where there’s been some worry lately about the future of its storied primary.

“The New Hampshire primary is in peril,” an alarmed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina told 30 people at a town hall gathering Saturday in Windham, N.H. Fox News’s rules for participation in the first GOP debate, Aug. 6, are effectively “nationalizing” the primary, he warned.

Only the top 10 candidates in national polls will be allowed on stage, and as of now, Senator Graham, Kasich, and several others in the enormous Republican field don’t qualify.

Leading New Hampshire Republicans are also upset, saying the rules are unfair and cut into their state’s traditional role of examining and winnowing the field. “It is not in the electorate’s interest to have TV debate criteria supplant this solemn duty,” 56 top state Republicans wrote in a letter to Fox President Roger Ailes last month.

Solemn duty? It’s that kind of language that drives people outside New Hampshire (and Iowa) crazy. Who are they – the people of two such demographically unrepresentative (i.e., very white) states – to narrow our choices, the rest of the country asks.

Iowa, in fact, is fading a bit as a force. Its Republican straw poll, held the summer before the Iowa caucuses, the nation’s first nominating contest, is no more. Iowans, too, are worried their role as “kingmakers” is ending.

But just look at the candidates’ schedules, and it’s clear that Iowa still matters. And so does New Hampshire.  

On this Sunday in July, Kasich is following in the footsteps of countless other political strivers with a presidential gleam in their eye, mixing it up with voters in small-town New Hampshire. Never mind that when Kasich announces on July 21, he will be the 16th major Republican to get into the race. But he might be able to get away with entering now. He’s the two-term governor of a critical battleground state, and has the highest job approval of any governor in the race.

Kasich insists the timing works.

“I don’t think we’re starting too late at all,” the Ohio governor tells the Monitor. “I think we’re fine. And we did really, really terrific [in fundraising]. In eight weeks, truth be told, it’s $12 million and with pledges, $14 million.”

Kasich is talking about his super-political action committee, New Day for America. By comparison, he’s not far behind top-tier candidate Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, whose super-PAC has raised $16 million since early April. Kasich also has snagged one of New Hampshire’s top Republicans, former US Sen. John E. Sununu, to run his super-PAC.

But in terms of actual campaigning, New Hampshire may be the ideal launch point for Kasich and all the other GOP “wild card” candidates polling too low (as of now) to make the Fox debate. Voters here know their role, and seven months before the state’s presidential primary, tentatively set for Feb. 9, 2016, many are already happily showing up at town halls to hear candidates make their case.

For some, it’s almost a hobby.

“It’s fun to listen to them all,” says Brian Bialas, an aide to a state senator in Massachusetts, who lives across the border in New Hampshire and has just attended his fourth campaign event, this one featuring Senator Graham at the library in Windham.

Mr. Bialas has already seen Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and Florida Senator Rubio. He gives Graham a thumbs-up – “He’s obviously very smart” – and likes his focus on national security, but when asked to rank his choices, Bialas lists former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush first, then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, then Kasich.

“Governors offer experience as an executive that’s unmatched,” says Bialas.

Some New Hampshire political players, like former Senator Sununu, have already thrown in with a candidate. Others are waiting for the dust to settle.

“The number of candidates is really unwieldy, which makes it difficult to winnow down who the top tier should be,” says Ovide Lamontagne, a two-time GOP nominee for New Hampshire governor, who is uncommitted. Mr. Lamontagne’s wife, Bettie, is co-chair of Ms. Fiorina’s campaign in the state.

Another high-profile N.H. Republican who’s uncommitted is long-time strategist Tom Rath.

“A lot of people are taking their time,” says Mr. Rath in his Concord, N.H., law office.  But “none of us get lonely at night, because the phone rings.”

It’s mostly staffers who call, but he’s also heard from Kasich. Rath says first he has to decide if he wants to play at all, after a 10-year relationship with two-time candidate Mitt Romney, and he doesn’t want to “rush into something.” 

 But, he adds, “We have a very deep, very talented field. Sometimes I get itchy and want to give advice.”

The female factor

For Fiorina, time is of the essence.

Like Graham and Kasich, Fiorina is not eligible for the Fox debate, as the polls stand now, and is spending a lot of time in New Hampshire in an apparent bid to generate buzz – buzz that could potentially spread to other polls. It’s a boomerang strategy that could work for others.

But as the only woman in the Republican field, Fiorina has another reason to stick around: The state is famously friendly to female politicians. The governor, both senators, and one of its two House members are all women, and, during a recent stretch, the state Senate was majority female.  

The prospect of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee also gives Fiorina some purchase: She clearly enjoys throwing punches at the former secretary of State. And Fiorina is well-organized here. Last Saturday, she spoke at the Coalition of N.H. Taxpayers’ annual picnic, and came in second in the group’s presidential straw poll, after Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. All she needs is money, and the voter buy-in that money represents.

At a Fiorina event Friday evening, at Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett, the room is packed and voter interest intense. After her remarks, she takes questions.

“I would be willing to pay to see you debate Hillary Clinton,” one man suggests.

There’s Fiorina’s opening: You can make that happen, she says, if you donate to my campaign – and get your friends to donate, too!

Asking for money – even just $1 – has been Fiorina’s way of trying to boost buy-in and poll numbers. But time is growing short to make the first debate, and voters here are playing it cagey.

“I’m still shopping,” says Marc Miville of Hooksett, who says he’s shaken candidates’ hands every four years since 1976. “I can’t wait to meet Scott Walker.  He’s a leader. But so is Fiorina: She doesn’t want to just talk, she wants to do things.”

Nationally, Fiorina is averaging 1.6 percent in the polls; in New Hampshire, she’s at 5 percent, but the “front-runner,” Mr. Bush, has only 16.3 percent.

“Nobody’s doing well in the polls,” says Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in Durham, N.H. “Most voters aren’t paying much attention, either Republican or Democrat, and won’t for several more months.”

Buying time

Ultimately, primary turnout here will be relatively high. In 2008, the last open-seat presidential race, 52 percent of eligible New Hampshire voters turned out, the highest in the country and a record for the state.

That gives candidates like Graham time to build up their profile, if they can raise enough money to last until February. He hopes to use New Hampshire as a springboard for the next primary, in his home state of South Carolina. But so far, the numbers are tough: In New Hampshire, Graham is at 0.5 percent, and nationally at 0.6 percent. Last weekend, Friday through Sunday, he had 10 events on his calendar in N.H., including a 9 a.m. visit to the town dump in Bedford and a stroll around the balloon festival in Hillsborough.

At the balloon festival, Graham eagerly approaches fair-goers, workers, children, anyone willing to hear his pitch.

“Hey young lady, sorry about your Social Security,” Graham says to a little girl. Funny one-liners are his standard fare. A bank employee running her company’s table at the fair tries to get Graham to open an account, and he insists he’s interested.

But it’s tough being a low-in-the-polls South Carolina politician in rural New Hampshire. Before Graham arrived at the fair, this reporter asked a fair-goer if she had seen Lindsey Graham. Her response: “I don’t even know who she is.”

As he was leaving the fair, Graham stopped to chat with two women sitting under a tree. After he left, a reporter asked about their conversation. Would she and her friend consider supporting him?

“We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we don’t vote,” said one of the women, Barbara Bunker of Greenville, N.H. “It’s God’s Kingdom.” 

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