At the time of this writing, the results of the New Hampshire primary and the Republican nominating contest are officially in doubt. At the time of this writing, the results of the Republican nominating contest, and to a lesser degree, the New Hampshire primary, couldn’t be more certain.
They weren’t decided Tuesday night; they weren’t decided in Iowa, and they won’t be decided in South Carolina in two weeks. The great secret of presidential campaigns is that despite two years of a carnivalesque drama, fluctuating poll numbers and maybe even a primary-night victory or two, it is pretty easy to tell who the winner will be once the field is set.
Did you really think Howard Dean would carry the Democratic line in 2004, even as he led all polls for most of the run-up to the voting? Did you really think Rudy Giuliani would be the Republican candidate in 2008, even as he opened up double-digit leads in state and national polls? Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are anomalies; on the Republican side, the exceptions are nonexistent. The also-rans—the ones whose turn it isn’t—run for one of two reasons: either they hope to finish in second place, in order to the next guy in line the next time around, or they are running To Prove a Point—that America is about to be taken over by Mexicans, or that moral decay is imminent. Or, this time around at least, they run to raise their profile, make some money off of book sales, get a gig on Fox News. (Has Herman Cain ever made a business move that paid off as much as his aborted attempt to become the Leader of the Free World?)
But gamely they soldier on.
On an autumnal Saturday in Amherst, N.H., Rick Santorum made a quick stop in a mobbed country store on the side of the road. He had skipped an earlier stop at a town nearby when, it was rumored, a bunch of protesters from the Occupy Movement had camped out nearby. After his surprising second-place showing in Iowa four days before, Mr. Santorum, despite having only six years ago lost re-election to the U.S. Senate by a whopping 18 points and having turned into an Internet laughingstock, had become the It Candidate of the field, and hundreds people gathered around a picnic table overlooking a lake to hear his spiel.
Among them was Susan Hutchings, an Occupy protester, who had taken off her knit “Occupy” hat and was disguising herself as a regular, undecided voter in the hopes of asking a question.
“It’s like every four years the circus comes to town. Rich white men come to talk about things that don’t make any sense and then one of them declares himself the ruler of the country for the next four years,” she said.
She is certainly right about one thing: New Hampshire, in the days leading up to the primary, is, in H.L. Mencken’s phrase, better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in. The flinty streets of the Granite State are overrun with PETA protesters in pink piglet costumes; Occupy supporters blowing trombones (“Which side are you on, Which side are you on” they sing as they march in formation down the street, leading one tweedy Republican to sing back, “The other side, the other side”), dreadlocked Ron Paulites determined to make their case every time a rival candidate gets set to speak, where, naturally, they get shouted down by the other candidate’s supporters. (At the Radisson in Nashua, as the “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” chants drowned out the “Paul! Paul! Paul!” ones, a leader of the Paulites threw his hands up in mock resignation, “O.K., your chants are louder than ours! I guess we will just all go home now.”) Reporters seem to outnumber residents, and after campaign events there is a mad dash to get reaction from the regular folks (“Sir! Excuse me! Are you from New Hampshire? No? Can you point me to someone who is?”).
Ru-Paul was there this weekend, holding in court in a Manchester diner to explain how she was tired of being confused with Ron Paul. Carl Paladino, the baseball-bat wielding former New York gubernatorial candidate most famous for sending around emails containing bestiality videos and pictures of Barack and Michelle Obama dressed as a pimp and prostitute, was there too, stumping for Newt Gingrich. It is perhaps the only place in America where one can overhear a high school bragging to his friends, “Oh, my god! I just saw Nikki Haley!”
But if it is a circus, it is a somewhat more muted one this time around, a carnival on the last legs of its tour, the trapeze artists looking a little wobbly up there and the bearded lady shorn down to a stubble. Although the end result of the primary season may be preordained, there are at least usually a couple of candidates who pass the smell test, who could plausibly pass for occupants of the Oval Office. This time around, polls never showed Mitt Romney with less than a double-digit lead.
At any moment, reporters were on the lookout for a candidate ready to “surge”—to say something particularly biting at a debate or to jump on an opponent’s gaffe—but the race was really for second place, or maybe even third among Mr. Santorum, Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich. Rick Perry, who, back before he started speaking, did actually seem like a legitimate opponent to Mr. Romney, all but abandoned New Hampshire for the Palmetto State. Reporters from national outlets had done the same, convincing assignment editors that South Carolina would be where the real action was, where the right wing of the party would make its final stand against Mr. Romney (and the facts that in South Carolina the weather was nicer, the politics dirtier, the girls supposedly prettier and the booze flowed freer helped them make the case more persuasively).
Down by the lake, Ms. Hutchings said that she had come to New Hampshire and to Mr. Santorum’s impromptu speech for a little “bird-dogging.”
She took out a piece of paper and read from it.
“The term bird-dog comes from hunting. The bird-dog’s job is to flush out the bird. Politicians are birds who try to keep their positions hidden behind vague rhetoric.”
She flipped the paper over and recited her script a couple of times. It contained a question about Scandinavia and longitudinal studies and paid family leave.
“And I’m guessing he’ll say, ‘No,’ because that’s socialist or whatever, and he’s an asshole.”
On the stump, Mr. Santorum comes across something like an 11-year-old whose buddies have just discovered his parents’ liquor cabinet. He doesn’t so much inspire as he pleads, trying to guilt-trip New Hampshirites into doing the right thing.
“I really do hope that the people of this state will do what is right, what is necessary,” he said, his voice rising up a notch or two as if trying to bore its way into the conscious of its audience. “People in this state are as involved in politics as any state in the country. That is why I have always defended New Hampshire as the first in the nation primary. You take this primary seriously, you step up and you lead when your country needs you.”
The night before, Mr. Santorum appeared at the Hillsborough County Republican Committee gala in the southern corner of the state. This was Republican red-meat territory. At the invocation at the start of the evening, a woman from the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women bowed her head, paid homage to “Our Gracious Heavenly Father, Creator and Sovereign Over All … I pray for President Obama, that You would turn his heart to fear Your name.” (Afterward, The Observer asked her if God did turn President Obama’s heart around, if she would support him. She looked generally perplexed at this theological conundrum. “Hmmm. If God did turn his heart? I would have to see some proof. I still want a Republican who is a true conservative in office.”)
Newt Gingrich was there and tore into Mr. Romney for not knowing what he thinks, and for raising taxes while he was governor of Massachusetts, including, he said a tax on people merely for being visually impaired. “A tax on people who are blind. I know they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, but really.” Rand Paul was there too, in his capacity as an increasingly bored surrogate for his father. (“Now everybody is going to be quiet, right, so you can hear my speech, right? It’s tough to give a speech twice in one night so I’m going to keep this one really short.”)
In the hallways, talk turned to what was most to dislike about President Obama—“I think it’s preserving our Constitutional liberties that is more important.” “I think we have to do something about these regulations that are strangling business.” One of Jon Huntsman’s daughters attracted the attentions of television cameras. A stand sold conservative pins with slogans like “That’s Not an Angry Mob—That’s My Mother.”
Outside by the doorway, Robert Stacey McCain, a conservative activist and blogger, who seems every bit like a chain-smoking Southern-drawling operative out of All the King’s Men tipped back his suede hat and panted over the Huntsman daughter.
“Did you see her? Oh, god! Oh, my god! Wow. It’s because I’m old and harmless now she’ll talk to me. If I had been out on the hunt she would have spotted me for a dangerous character right away.”
He caught himself and explained how this was the right’s last chance to stick it to mainstream Wall Street Republicans and maybe derail the Romney train.
“What were we talking about? Oh, yeah, social conservatism. Anyway, if Santorum overperforms, Romney underperforms … if Santorum, as far outside the norm as he is, does well here, and then you get 11 days and go down to South Carolina and if he does well in South Carolina—no, if he wins South Carolina, if he wins South Carolina—and South Carolina is the nut-cutter.
“They are all imperfect, but all of my conservative friends agree that Romney is the worst RINO in all of RINO-dom. He is the anti-Christ or something. But you know, four years ago, Romney was our guy! He was the one that was going to stop McCain! So how he became completely unacceptable, I don’t know. It’s his turn. That’s the way the Republican Party rolls, but everybody is trying to stop the Republican establishment. You know, all conservatives hate the god-damn establishment. That’s just the way it is.”
Mr. Romney seems unable to know what to do with all of this sentiment. His rallies in New Hampshire were genuine events, with hundreds of people lining up to hear him speak (although New Hampshirites may be the only people in the union who will take time out of their day to attend a rally, stand up and cheer there, grab a lawn sign on the way out and then tell you they are still undecided).
He knows how to throw the aforementioned red meat on the grill—“What frightens me today is that we have a president I don’t think who understands the nature of America”—but will quickly catch himself, and say that he doesn’t think the president is such a bad guy. He likes to turn the microphone over to his wife, Ann, who plays the part of a saucy wench so sharped-tongued that parents should keep their children close at hand.
“It’s a dangerous thing to give me a microphone. You never know what I am going to say,” she told thousands of supporters at a rally at a high school gym in Exeter, and then invariably, she will say something about when before the 2012 campaign she asked her husband, “‘Mitt, can you save America?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’”
And the cornerstone of Mr. Romney’s campaign to save America seems to be keeping it from becoming Europe. In his speeches he rails against the Continent as a place of low-earning and lazy ne’er-do-well Socialists.
“I don’t want America to become more like Europe. I want America to become more like America,” he told one rally.
There are plenty of Europeans in New Hampshire for the spectacle, and luckily for future relations, they don’t seem to mind that much.
“We even heard Mitt Romney say that the average European has only 50 percent of the income of the average American people,” said Frits Huffnagel, a Danish public relations executive. He patted The Observer’s shoulder. “But don’t feel pity on us. It’s not true.”
As the voting began, the circus seemed to have moved on. Mr. Santorum had spent most of his time recently in South Carolina. Mr. Perry was off the stage completely. Mr. Gingrich had toned down the language on Mr. Romney and was back to giving long-winded lectures about weapons systems.
“I just can’t take any more!” one reporter assigned to cover the former speaker said to her colleagues after yet another Gingrich stem winder. Mr. Paul’s supporters were everywhere, but not so much Mr. Paul. Mr. Huntsman was enjoying a bit of the spotlight, but his candidacy would likely collapse even if he somehow eked past Mr. Paul.
Mr. Romney had the most volunteers in the state, but they too were a relatively muted crew. During Saturday’s debate, the campaign headquarters in Manchester locked the door against all press and outsiders and hosted a debate-watching party for a few dozen supporters. They snacked on popcorn chicken and Dum-dum lollipops but mostly fought off drowsiness as the candidates refrained from attacking one another. The only time they got energized was when Mr. Huntsman said that a typical Saturday night for him meant speaking with his sons who were serving overseas in the military. “Boo!” the Romneyites yelled. “Pander!”
Even the protesters couldn’t quite summon the energy.
Ms. Hutchings, the Occupy protester bird-dogging Mr. Santorum at the lake, did eventually get called on. But before the light of the TV cameras and few hundred Republicans, she lost her nerve, and could only meekly offer up a question about what he intended to do about jobs, which Mr. Santorum brushed off with vague rhetoric.
Disappointed, Ms. Hutchings gathered a half-dozen of her fellow Occupiers and chased after a confused Mr. Santorum chanting, “Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Wall Street!” Reporters stopped her to find out if she was from New Hampshire and what she thought of the candidates.
“Don’t you see?” she implored. “It’s all a charade!”
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