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Sixteen Harvard students joined more than 250 other volunteers in John Kerry’s campaign’s “Extreme Canvass” weekend, which hit New Hampshire Saturday to drum up support in advance of the Jan. 27 primary.
The weekend started for nine of the Harvard students at a Dover public school, where Kerry addressed an auditorium of 200 people. The crowd of supporters jumped to their feet and cheered as U.S. Representative Marty Meehan, D-Mass., introduced “John F. Kerry,” conjuring up the image of another Catholic senator from Massachusetts and war hero turned candidate.
The comparison is ubiquitous, even in the campaign office, where a bobblehead doll of John F. Kennedy, sits still in its box. The doll is not dancing yet, but neither is Kerry, who trails Wesley Clark and Howard Dean in the most recent national polls.
But in New Hampshire, Kerry is running second and he took advantage of his home field advantage to make a casual but confident speech to his supporters, touting his foreign policy credentials and outlining his health insurance plan.
The main theme of the speech—and the campaign so far—was the Bush administration’s “arrogant” demeanor in dealing with foreign and domestic policy.
“We should not be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them in Brooklyn,” Kerry said, as he shared the stage with half a dozen firefighters in gold and black “Firefighters for Kerry” t-shirts. “Bush’s policies are screwed up.”
The mixed crowd of students, volunteers and older supporters responded well to the speech, rising for a standing ovation when Kerry stressed the need for accountability in the Oval Office. He paced in front of the auditorium as he spoke, without a tie but with a small American flag pin on his blazer’s lapel.
Kerry chided the audience for the dearth of Red Sox hats—only four. His was in the car, he claimed. In fact, Kerry tried to demonstrate his love for the nation by juxtaposing it with his commitment to Red Sox nation.
“Pedro versus Roger. It doesn’t get any better than that and I’m in New Hampshire campaigning my ass off,” he joked. “Let no one doubt where my priorities are.”
But the Red Sox, like the red leaves, seemed a remote concern for many on this sunny, New Hampshire day, as grassroots politics took over the show.
Hitting the Pavement
For Nicholas F. B. Smyth ’05, this was his second time up to New Hampshire this semester. President of Harvard Students for Kerry, and also a Crimson editor, Smyth took his candidate’s message to the streets. “You learn more about politics here than in any class,” Smyth said.
Anna Weisfeiler, ’04-’05, who had also been canvassing last month for Kerry decided to return for more personal reasons.
“If I meet him I’ll say thank you,” she said on the hour and a half drive up to Dover.
Kerry’s Senate office has been helping Weisfeiler and her mother search for her uncle Boris, who was abducted in 1985 while hiking near a Nazi colony in Chile.
After 19 years, the family has not given up on finding Boris alive.
“My mom is trying to get info. She sent a letter to Barney Frank and both Senators,” Weisfeiler said. “Kerry’s office is really good about this.”
But for most canvassers, the outing was less emotional.
Andrea Ducas, a first-year at Brown, made the trip up to Manchester with boyfriend Patrick J. Toussaint ’06, who plans to run for office someday. The couple had worked the phones for Kerry weeks ago, but said they enjoyed canvassing more.
“It’s easier to do the canvassing because people aren’t as angry,” Ducas said. “When you call it seems like it bothers them.”
Walking the neighborhood, Ducas contacted more than 80 residents and was surprised at how uninvolved many were.
“It’s amazing to see that people don’t really care about politics,” she said. “They’re registered Democrats and they’re making uninformed decisions.”
The campaign gave out lists of names and addresses to all of its volunteers, before dropping them off in pairs at various street corners. The Harvard canvassers focused on the working class neighborhoods where there are many registered Democrats.
But even in this friendly territory, there were residents like Janice A. Martineau, who appeared suspicious at the arrival of people who knew her name, address, and political affiliation.
Eating pizza in her backyard while her 14-year-old daughter braided her hair, she told canvassers that she “definitely” planned to vote for Kerry.
Martineau seemed unfazed—or unaware—that Kerry trails Dean in the most recent New Hampshire poll by approximately 10 points.
“Who is Dean?” she asked.
The question of who is Dean or Kerry or Lieberman is one that all the candidates in this crowded field are struggling to answer. Dean and Kerry lead the field in New Hampshire, and are competing fiercely throughout the state in cities like Manchester which boasts 100,000 residents. But some Kerry officials worry that they will have to concede western parts of state, which border on Dean’s stronghold of Vermont, where he was once Governor.
“People who support Kerry know why they’re supporting Kerry,” said volunteer coordinator Kate Murphy. “People supporting Dean just say they met him once and felt warm. But people learned their lesson with Bush, who didn’t know anything about foreign policy, and look at it now.”
Murphy served macaroni and cheese to volunteers as she delivered her brief pep talk. She explained that the two main points of canvassing were talking up Kerry and determining how registered Democrats are leaning.
Murphy sounded confident, noting that Kerry was “en fuego” recently. She assured the faithful that Kerry was steady in the polls, compared to a falling Dean.
Falling or not, the Dean campaign is never far off in the conversations among volunteers. It doesn’t help that Dean and Kerry both rent space in the same converted textile mill in Manchester.
But for supporters like Alton Buland, ’04, who spent the day canvassing, the choice of Kerry is clear.
“I like his experience,” he said. “Senator, war hero, prosecutor. He has an international perspective.”
Out on Manchester’s Beech Street, however, Kerry’s decorated service in Vietnam carried less weight with Roger A. Provencher.
“I’m a Vietnam veteran and that doesn’t play shit in my book,” he said.
Flanked by his small dog, Red, Provencher spoke with canvassers for twenty minutes on his door step, explaining his utter disillusionment with politics and politicians.
“I’m not impressed with any of them. I don’t want Kerry,” Provencher said. “I don’t want Mrs. Clinton…They lie and they cheat. How do you get beyond that?”
The last politician he liked was Jimmy Carter, he said.
Like many of the people who greeted canvassers, Provencher was “against the war absolutely,” and speculated that the invasion of Iraq was driven by natural resources, not necessity.
Elizabeth White of Harvard Street agreed with Provencher about Bush, claiming that she could not trust him because “he’s an oil dealer.”
On her front lawn, she spoke with canvassers about her new green jeep and her country, as a large American flag lapped against the side of her house. She said she supports Kerry, even if she is not completely committed to him. “
I keep wondering what are they going to say about him,” she said. “Did he attack some woman?”
The fear of political scandal and corruption resonated among registered Democrats in Manchester, who seized on accusations that the current administration is too proud and too corrupt. These voters may not know exactly which Democratic candidate to vote for, but they are galvanized against Bush.
Gilbert Girard summed up the frustration of many Democrats, “I know one thing. Bush is not getting in… not with this rate of unemployment.”
This discontent is what the nine candidates hope to use in their efforts to win the election.
And Harvard students plan to help.
Harvard Students for Lieberman President Rebecca E. Rubins ’05, went up yesterday with a small group to canvass and see Lieberman. Students for Dean begins canvassing next Saturday, and will go up every Saturday after that, according to Andrew Crespo, the group’s co-chair.
All sub-groups of the Harvard College Democrats, these “Students For” spin-offs receive funding from the College Democrats as well as floor time at the College Democrats’ meetings.
For Kerry’s part, he capped off his full day of campaigning in New Hampshire, with a house party Saturday night and a bonfire for two hundred people, while Harvard Students for Kerry returned to Cambridge by van.
On the highway, within sight of Fenway and the neighboring Citgo sign, Buland finally remembered the question he had intended to ask Kerry at the rally: “If you’re going to be in New Hampshire all day, can I have your Sox tickets?”
—Staff writer Jonathan P. Abel can be reached at email@example.com.
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