||Al Hunt is the executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal. He is a panelist on CNN's "The Capital Gang" and a host of "Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields."|
Al Hunt: Primary stakes are huge
By Albert R. Hunt/CNN
February 1, 2000
Web posted at: 1:33 p.m. EST (1833 GMT)
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- It's not about war or peace like 1968 or an ideological challenge to an incumbent president like 1976 and 1992. But the stakes in today's New Hampshire primary are huge.
Granite State voters--as they have done so often in the past--will frame the political architecture of the 2000 election.
If the two front-runners win, Vice President Albert Gore on the Democratic side and Texas Gov. George W. Bush among Republicans, they will virtually sew up the nomination. But if Arizona Sen. John McCain captures the GOP primary or former Sen. Bill Bradley pulls an upset in the Democratic contest, there may be a protracted primary struggle. Finally, New Hampshire will winnow out the also-rans; if you can't win, or at least place, in New Hampshire, you won't be taken seriously elsewhere.
Other states resent the disproportionate influence the 1.1 million New Hampshire citizens have on presidential politics. But this institution has a remarkable record. Since the New Hampshire primary first was inaugurated in 1952, every elected president, with one exception, first won this primary. The exception was Bill Clinton in 1992 who, after allegations of womanizing and draft evasion surfaced during the primary, still managed to finish second and dub himself "The Comeback Kid."
Nevertheless the state and the primary have changed considerably over the last half century. This used to be an industrial state dominated by textile mills, shoe factories and some farms. Today it's an affluent, high-tech, information-age economy especially in the populous Southern Corridor, where most of the residents are immigrants from other states.
And while the New Hampshire primary always attracted lots of press attention, it has become a virtual media circus now. There are over a thousand journalists here, including some from such faraway spots as Australia and Japan, and last week the front-runners were surrounded by scores of reporters and technicians. At last week's CNN-WMUR Republican and Democratic debates, over 500 journalists jammed into a viewing room and almost 200 were turned away.
The local media has changed dramatically too, starting with the rise of WMUR, the only statewide television station. This has cut into the legendary power of the right-wing Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire's largest newspaper. In 1972 it was the vitriol of the Union Leader that brought Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie to tears and in 1980 George Herbert Walker Bush, fresh from an upset win in the Iowa caucuses, was devastated as a "one–world" left-winger by Union Leader publisher William Loeb.
But Mr. Loeb died the following year and the Union Leader has lost much of its bite and clout. Unlike the old days, when the news pages were an appendage for Loeb's editorials, it generally provides straight coverage. It is supporting Steve Forbes in today's election and few experts believe the wealthy publisher will come close to Messrs. McCain or Bush.
One thing that hasn't changed is the premium on retail politics in New Hampshire. The seven candidates combined have spent more than a year campaigning in this state; John McCain alone has spent 73 days and held 114 town meetings. Voters here actually talk about meeting and even grilling presidential candidates. For whatever deficiencies this electorate might have, that beats holding the first contest in big state where it could come down to the best television commercials.