D.C. panel talks N.H. primary’s relevance ahead of event’s centennial

Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2015
If there’s one thing prospective presidential candidates have come to expect out of the New Hampshire primary, it’s a healthy dose of humility. And how could they not?

There was that time when a Concord-area barber cut Arizona Congressman Mo Udall down to size. The candidate, according to a story told by Sen. John McCain last night at an event celebrating New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation political contest, walked into the shop and introduced himself as a presidential candidate.

“Yeah,” the barber replied, “we were just laughing about that this morning.”

There was the other time when Bob Dole was visiting someone’s home in Manchester, when a woman confronted him to let him know that her neighbors were probably going to be angry if he didn’t make sure to visit her neighborhood, too.

The kicker, McCain recalled at the event: “They found out the woman lived two blocks away.”

At the Newseum in Washington, D.C., McCain and a panel of other first-in-the-nation veterans – Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, political strategists James Carville and Tom Rath, Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid and Bloomberg View columnist Albert Hunt, the event’s moderator – gathered to reflect on the importance of the New Hampshire primary leading up to its 100th year in 2016.

Their stories spanned all corners of the Granite State. They talked up nights spent at the Wayfarer Inn in Manchester – reporters and campaign staff mingling without the pressure of round-the-clock deadlines and the impulse to broadcast incessant updates in 140 characters or less.

They talked about other nights spent catching up Neil Tillotson, the legendary owner of the equally legendary Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, the town where people cast their ballots just after midnight during each presidential primary. McCain said he once asked Tillotson to name his favorite candidate of all those he saw in person. When Tillotson said “Mr. Roosevelt,” McCain assumed he was talking about Franklin Delano – he meant Theodore.

Carville, meanwhile, recalled the “electricity” that met then-candidate Bill Clinton in Keene during his marathon sprint leading up to the 1992 primary – and the test of endurance their team encountered in the eight days of debates and appearances ahead of the election.

“It’s an athlete that is just . . . with that back against the wall, it’s the fourth quarter,” Carville said.

The lingering importance of that window between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary was echoed by other panelists.

“That is the best eight days in American politics,” Rath said. “It is the absolute defining moment. Nowhere else you can – everybody’s there, in one place, in one time, in a place that geographically you can get anywhere to in two hours. And everybody’s playing the game.”

Of course, Rath and others added, the dynamics of the primary have changed – the appearances have in some cases become more staged, the press corps have become more focused on gaffes or sound bytes, the “trackers” and opposition teams have become more prevalent, the moments when the candidates feel comfortable just being themselves have become more rare.

Taking all of that into account, it makes sense why one audience member posed this final question to the panel: Will the New Hampshire primary still matter in 50 years?

“I think it might matter, and I pray that it matters because I don’t want campaigns to be decided by who can buy the most commercials,” McCain said, prompting applause.

Still, McCain conceded that “the influence of social networking really has had a profound effect on campaigns.”

Shaheen, who is plenty familiar with the expectations of New Hampshire voters as both a political candidate and a behind-the-scenes organizer, said she remains optimistic.

“The thing that’s so sort of everlasting about the New Hampshire primary is what we’ve all said is so critical about it – and that is the importance of engaging with people,” Shaheen said. “You know, if you can’t do that as president, it’s hard to do anything else that the president has to do.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)