The perils of New Hampshire

By David Shribman, NEA Columnist

BRETTON WOODS, N.H. -- Stroll through the ancient halls of the dowager hotel here and history fairly screams at you. So does the burden of history that plays a quiet, subtle role in the presidential election that is unfolding here.

At one time 50 trains a day stopped here. During the 1944 international monetary conference that created the postwar economy, John Maynard Keynes preached his economic gospel here. (Dean Acheson once interrupted him.) As a presidential candidate, George H.W. Bush campaigned here. And if you sit for a drink this summer in the meticulously restored Rosebrook Bar, with its stunning view of the White Mountains' Presidential Range, you cannot avoid a Hillary Rodham Clinton commercial on the television here.

And here it becomes clear that great historical forces are at work in the 2016 election. This is the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primary. And America's greatest contemporary legacies -- two dynasties that together contributed presidencies that account for 20 percent of that century of the Granite State's inexplicable but unavoidable political prominence -- face their greatest test here in America's legacy political battleground.

The Clinton and Bush families have suffered defeats here and have enjoyed victories here, their fortunes changing as fast as the weather, which the other day turned from frosty cold to humid hot in the spell of a quarter-hour. It was, after all, in New Hampshire that the senior George Bush's "big-mo" momentum, created with a stunning 2-percentage-point victory over former Gov. Ronald Reagan in Iowa only eight days earlier, sputtered to a close in 1980. And it was here, as Sen. Bob Dole seemed to surge, that Vice President Bush enjoyed his vital comeback primary victory in 1988.



It was here that Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas fought back in 1992 after disclosures about extramarital affairs and draft dodging, claiming "comeback kid" status himself, even though he was defeated by former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts -- and setting his campaign on a glide path to the White House. And it was here that the former New York senator, bloodied and battered after being defeated in Iowa by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, won an important victory and gave perhaps her most stirring speech, an unforgettable comeback cantata of her own.

But now New Hampshire stands again as a critical test for both families.

Both know the peril in these hills, so treacherous that the Appalachian Mountain Club, which for 139 years -- before there even was a New Hampshire primary -- has encouraged outsiders to explore the farthest reaches of this rugged state, publishes a well-read "Accident Report" in its biannual journal. Its topic is mishaps in the mountains. There are plenty of them.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas had a clear path to the 2000 GOP nomination until he was ambushed here by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who triumphed by 18 points. Perhaps no presidential candidate whose home state did not border New Hampshire -- and six good-neighbor candidates, five from Massachusetts and one from Maine, have won here -- has had a greater stake in winning New Hampshire than Jeb Bush does in 2016.

With a gold-plated list of supporters and millions of dollars at hand, Bush's campaign is built for the long run, but it will not have a long run if Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin or Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, all considered high-potential candidates here, win this primary. The Bush campaign is predicated on an early sweep, even if in a 17-candidate field he wins a small plurality.

The political calculus will shift many times before Feb. 9, but it seems possible now that a Bush victory here might clear out the center-right lane, potentially ending as many as three other candidacies, though Walker would very likely survive. In this fight, Bush has many advantages; a top adviser to one of his rivals enviously cites Bush's easy manner with voters, his graceful mien on the campaign trail, and his ability to listen respectfully to questioners and not to launch into a stock, prepared answer.

Clinton's challenge is different entirely. The former senator and secretary of state basically faces one opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been attracting large crowds and who, on the surface, has the home-court advantage because he is from Vermont, New Hampshire's neighbor to the west. But this is the fourth New Hampshire primary for the Clintons, who now have strong roots here.

"Many, many residents here won't vote for a candidate until meeting that candidate in person -- shaking his hand, looking her in the eye, asking a direct question -- and that often has to happen in the small living room gatherings and town hall events for the lesser-known and longer-shot candidates hoping that New Hampshire will validate or jump-start their campaigns," says Jim Collins, former editor of Yankee magazine and a leading curator of North Country culture. "Hillary Clinton won't have to do that this time around, but she did at one time, and people here remember."

Together the two candidates have been working New Hampshire hard, not only in personal visits but in flurries of phone calls beyond the view of correspondents and commentators. Bush took the time to meet with Joe McQuaid, the publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, and has raked in operatives experienced in statewide campaigns for the Senate and the White House. Clinton claims almost all the top Democratic operatives here.

The peril for both may be having too many establishment ties. The "live free or die" ethos that is the leitmotif of New Hampshire life isn't congenial to inherited power, a tradition dating to the American Revolution and reignited by the Yankee Progressives of the early part of the 20th century. Three quarters of a century later, in 1984, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale rolled into this state on a tailwind of inevitability, and was skunked by Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado.

The beauty of the New Hampshire primary, Hart says today, is its inclination to give an opening to "so-called 'dark horse' candidates, those without huge financial resources or national notoriety, to make their case for leadership."

As beautiful as it may be to their rivals, to Clinton and Bush, that characteristic, celebrated for a century, could have dark consequences.

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