Few places have been better to John McCain than tiny New Hampshire, which twice gave him huge victories in its Republican presidential primary. His first win made him a strong contender for his party's 2000 nomination. But it was his January 2008 comeback, after his campaign had been practically written off, that sealed his special relationship with the state.
"New Hampshire is McCain country," says former state Democratic Party Chairman George Bruno.
That bond is something McCain is counting on as he tries to flip the state back into the Republican column this fall. "New Hampshire knows John McCain better than any other state, except possibly Arizona," said Granite State GOP political consultant Mike Dennehy, a senior adviser to the McCain campaign. "And you could make the argument that the people of New Hampshire know him better than they do in Arizona."
Despite that familiarity and fondness, the Republican standard-bearer still faces challenges as he attempts to lay claim to New Hampshire. The state has been trending Democratic over the past two elections. And presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama will work hard to discredit McCain's maverick image, which has played well in the state.
New Hampshire is the only state that swung into the Democratic column in 2004 after going for George W. Bush four years earlier. Democrat John Kerry's narrow victory--50 percent to 49 percent--came from expanding his party's margins in its traditional strongholds, such as Stafford County, home of the University of New Hampshire, but also from picking up two blue-collar counties--Coos on the northern tip of the state, where paper and pulp manufacturing have been a mainstay of the local economy, and Sullivan on the state's southwestern border with Vermont, with its old mill towns, Claremont and Newport.
Given the slide in the state's economy--paper manufacturing has virtually halted in the north country; revenues from the state's business profits tax and real estate transfer tax are off; and there is uncertainty over how $4-a-gallon gasoline will affect tourism heading into the fall leaf season--Obama could build on Kerry's successes.
"The summer will be telling," said Obama New Hampshire Co-Chairman Jim Demers. Likewise, Demers pointed out that the cost of home-heating oil is going to hit many Granite Staters hard right around election time. "That, I believe, will be a shock to their system when they have to pay for that first big tank of heating oil in October."
In 2004, President Bush increased his margins in the state's two most populous counties, Hillsborough and Rockingham, which include not only Manchester, with ethnic enclaves that have frustrated Democrats in recent cycles, but also the Boston exurbs along the state's southeastern border.
In 2006, Democrats swept the entire state, capturing its two congressional seats and taking control of both chambers of the state Legislature. And since then, the GOP brand has shown other signs of weakness. In the presidential primary, undeclared voters, the independents that both campaigns think will be crucial to success in the state this fall, showed a strong preference for playing in the Democratic contest, notwithstanding McCain's appeal. According to the secretary of state's office, 121,515 undeclared voters, who can participate in either party's primary, took a Democratic ballot. Only 75,522 opted for a GOP ballot. At the same time, the Republican registration advantage over the Democrats dropped below 13,000.
New Hampshire Democrats are raising more money than their Republican counterparts. Furthermore, candidate filings for the next election are now closed, and the GOP has not fielded candidates for more than 70 Democratic-controlled seats in the 400-member state House.
"There's no doubt that the Republican Party has struggled over the last few years to get their bearings and win some elections here," said McCain adviser Dennehy. But he predicts, "The race is going to come down to the independent undeclared voters. And [McCain] is someone who has a proven record of working across the partisan aisles."
He contrasted McCain's recent town hall meeting, where he took questions from all comers, with the Democratic standard-bearer's June 27 visit to the town of Unity with former rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. Dennehy derided the Democrats' joint appearance as "a publicity stunt."
The outing may have been carefully choreographed, but its imagery was critical for the Obama campaign, which will need solid support from Clinton's supporters in the fall. One positive sign for Obama was that after he and Clinton spoke and worked the crowd, they dropped by a nearby elementary school where several prominent Democratic women who supported Clinton in the primary had gathered. According to one attendee, Clinton's female backers were all jockeying to get their picture taken with Obama.
Not every Democrat in the Granite State is sold on Obama, of course. The day before the Unity event, the McCain campaign announced formation of New Hampshire Democrats for McCain, which Jim McConaha and Valery Mitchell of Concord co-chair. Long active in Democratic Party politics, the couple backed Democrat Christopher Dodd in the presidential sweepstakes this year. McConaha was an early backer of Bill Clinton in the 1992 election.
"I've certainly heard the comments from people who say, 'Gee, I was really counting on Hillary, I'm sorry she pulled out; I don't know what I'm going to do now,' " noted former state Democratic Chairman Bruno, who backed Bill Richardson in the primary but is now supporting Obama. "You'd expect, to some extent, for people to be thinking that way. But for people to be acting that way and going over the cliff is certainly a surprise."
The Obama team expects that most of the voters who sided with another Democrat in the primary will come into the fold by this fall. "It's going to take some time," Demers said. "Let's face it: This was a very long and grueling campaign. Some people here worked very hard and got very personally involved with Barack Obama's or Hillary Clinton's campaign. And a lot of people feel like they need a little vacation from presidential politics."
At the same time, McCain has work to do with his Republican base. His strength in New Hampshire comes from his popularity among independents, a plurality of the state's electorate. According to exit polls conducted for the television networks and the Associated Press, McCain captured the GOP primary in both 2000 and 2008 because of his support from independents.
This year's exit poll also found that the most-conservative voters in the Republican primary backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And, lately, that wing of the party is coming around to McCain.
On July 1, Romney's state director, Jim Merrill, and former Romney New Hampshire Chairman Bruce Keough spent time at the McCain headquarters in Manchester, phoning individuals in their campaign networks to enlist support for the senator from Arizona. And Romney himself is scheduled to march on McCain's behalf in the Fourth of July parade in Wolfeboro, where Romney has a vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee.
"The base is coming together," Merrill said. But he added that McCain's challenge "is to go beyond the Republican base" and compete for independents, which Obama "is going to fight him tooth and nail for."
Indeed, the Obama campaign understands that it cannot allow McCain to maintain his maverick appeal in the state and will have to stress his many votes in support of Bush administration policy and his new support for lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling and for Bush's tax cuts.
As Obama Co-Chair Demers puts it, "This will be a campaign where the independents will have to learn who both the candidates really are."
This article appears in the July 5, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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