The Quadrennial Quest

1968: The Tet Offensive shows there's no light at the end of the tunnel; hordes of anti-War students get "Clean for Gene" and the Wisconsin senator-cum-poet's strong showing stuns LBJ into with-drawing from the race. A ghost with a five o'clock shadow named Richard Nixon rises from the dead as other Republicans self-destruct.

1972: White House spies keep an eye on proceedings, planting Watergate seeds [the Canuck letter, et. al] as part of Nixon's sabotage program. Ed "Big Ed" Muskie, the Maine senator with "a free ride" to the Democratic nomination, breaks down on the back of a flatbed truck, flustered by Manchester Union-Leader publisher Generalissimo William Loeb. George McGovern, the soft-spoken South Dakotan teacher and World War II bomber pilot, reminds enough voters that Vietnam hasn't gone away to keep Muskie under 50 per cent and get his own candidacy rolling. Nixon? He's too engrossd with Peking, Chou En-Lai and the Great Wall ["It is indeed a great wall"] to worry.

1976: The nuclear peanut rides tall in the saddle, grinning his way past a crowded field of "hopefuls" to a victory here and the covers of Time and Newsweek. Can the nomination be far behind? No. Ford--he was our president then--edges Ronald Reagan, who shrugs it off. He's a young man.

1980: Well?

For the politician who thinks he has what it takes to confound 220 million-to-one odds and rest his feet on the Oval Office desk, New Hampshire is the place where dreams take shape or begin to crumble.

Once in a while, as the media maw crushes the state, someone will point out that--"in reality"--the New Hampshire primary does not mean a hell of a lot; that it accounts for only 19 of the 3361 delegates (or 0.5 per cent) who will decide the nomination at the Democratic Convention in New York and 22 of the 1993 (1.1 per cent) Republican delegates who will gather in Detroit in July. But rational calculations of the value of the 42nd most populous state in the nation just don't cut it in New Hampshire, a nightmare Never-Never Land where winners lose and losers win, where perception is reality and reality is irrelevant.

New Hampshire votes tomorrow, and half-a-hundred trends, meanings, insights and revelations will be gleaned from the wisdom that its 200,000 or so voters bestow. More than two candidates will claim victories, moral or otherwise, and at least one will call it quits. The primary, as is its wont, will mark a watershed in this campaign, separate wheat from chaff, get the ball rolling, shift the momentum, be the straw that broke the camel's back or prove the turning point. But no matter how it turns out, New Hampshire will be judged by the mythos which have surrounded this poly-sci microcosm and given it the dubious privilege of determining political fortunes.

Because no one really knows what to expect, New Hampshire's pronouncement will be unexpected; that's how it's supposed to be. Like any self-respecting essentially random group of human beings, the voters of New Hampshire are perverse and capricious. And right now, the President of the United States, three senators, two congressmen, one governor, two ex-governors and one random bureacrat--named Carter, Kennedy, Baker, Dole, Anderson, Crane, Brown, Reagan, Connally and Bush--are scared to death of them.

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What is New Hampshire? An almanac calls it a "relatively small but well wooded and scenic state of mountains, lakes and rapid rivers that provide a good water supply and large hydroelectric-power potential." About a million people inhabit its 9304 square miles; only six states are smaller. The state motto, which by a Supreme Court decision may be taped over on license plates by citizens who object, is "Live Free or Die." State flower: purple lilac; bird: purple finch; tree: white birch. Populated by Indians before the Europeans arrived in the 1600s, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and the one that made that document legal. A fifth of the state consists of public parklands, which, along with 17 miles of coastline, attract half a billion dollars in tourism annually. Low tax rates have brought an influx of industrial development. While the 424-member (most in the nation) legislature meets in Concord, the capital, Manchester is the largest city and home of the Union Leader, the largest newspaper.

Politically, the state tends to the conservative and hawkish, but the proportionally huge number of Independents (160,000 registered as of last September, compared with 177,000 Republicans and 146,000 Democrats) reflects its notorious unpredictability when primary time rolls around. New Hampshire rarely makes the New York or Washington papers between presidential election years--except for protests against the nuclear power plant under construction in Seabrook or for the "Volvo International" tennis tournament in Bretton Woods--but it is never far from the hearts and minds of ambitious politicians or those who chronicle them. (Ever seen a column called "Two Years to Utah"?) The federal grants and friendly phone calls pour in. Other primaries and caucuses--with the increasingly notable exception of Iowa--can be put off; but New Hampshire is mandatory, a rite of passage for unknowns and incumbent presidents alike. It gets real cold up there and snows a lot: the bones creak when you have to be up by six every morning to shake hands with stone-bored workers at some shoe factory.

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New Hampshire began giant-killing in 1932, when New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 snatched all eight Democratic delegates from front-runner Alfred E. Smith. Twenty years later, Senator Estes Kefauver's upset nudged President Harry S. Truman into retirement. When LBJ and Muskie flunked the New Hampshire test, they merely continued a time-honored tradition.

Even as it levels death blows at the over-confident, New Hampshire gives an incalculable boost--in publicity and attention, credibility and money--to candidates who emerge unscathed. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the war hero, finally forced to declare his party, blitzkrieged Robert Taft in 1952; John F. Kennedy '40 impressed regulars by mopping up in 1960; it's after New Hampshire that the survivors start giving their aides funny looks, wondering who's going to fit in which Cabinet slot. Sometimes New Hampshire just plays the non sequitur: with two hot-to-trot Republicans (Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller) breathing down their necks in 1964, Granite State voters gave an easy victory to Henry Cabot Lodge, then U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, of all places, conducting a long-distance (10,000 miles) write-in campaign from Saigon.

If past history holds up, hundreds of reporters will devote more than half the articles written in the entire Presidential campaign to this primary. They'll record the obscure and trivial and, thus, memorable moments of New Hampshire, simultaneously tearing at and reinforcing the larger-than-life mystique of the quadrennial Quest for the Holy Momentum. Like a fellow named Edward "Ned" Coll, who distinguished himself from other Democratic candidates at a televised debate two days before the 1972 primary by waving a large rubber rat at the cameras and declaring, "This represents the real problem of violence in America." Or "Laugh-In" comedian Pat Paulsen's short-lived write-in campaign. Remember Sam Yorty's 1972 New Hampshire bid? No one else does. Last time around, another gaggle of absurdist candidates spiced the winter grind: Stanley "Vote Alphabetically" Arnold (290 votes), the Rev. Arthur "We need to put Jesus Christ back into politics" Blessit (886 votes, or 1 per cent), Robert L. "Elect the Last President and Give America Parliamentary Government" Kelleher (113 votes), and the anti-Communist ticket of Billy Joe Clegg and Auburn Lee Pack-wood of Springfield, Mo. (188 votes). This year, Ronald Reagan's paltry attempts at humor will have to provide the comic relief.