Bob Dole has been here before and knows New Hampshire activists take their presidential primary pretty seriously, often demanding to meet the candidates several times before choosing sides. Still, he’s got a shortcut in mind.
“I’m willing to meet each of you three times today,” the Senate majority leader joked Saturday as he opened his campaign in the state that derailed his last White House bid in 1988.
“I would just say on this first day of what is going to be a long journey, I’d appreciate your help,” Dole told an overflow crowd of more than 300 people at the Keene library.
And so it began.
A year before the first votes are cast, the Republicans who would be president are busy raising money. Several have already paid multiple visits to the kickoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
But not until this weekend had Dole, the GOP’s front-runner, hit the trail as a certain candidate. So his arrival, and a state party dinner tonight that is bringing more than a half-dozen GOP contenders together for the first time, served as the ceremonial start of the 1996 campaign in New Hampshire.
Iowa and New Hampshire are the small states where voter-by-voter contact matters, where an unknown like Jimmy Carter can make a name for himself or where a big name like Lyndon Johnson or Dole can stagger.
Mindful of 1988, when he never recovered from losing New Hampshire to George Bush, Dole served notice Saturday he will not be outworked in this state. Dole was scrambling to nine town hall meetings over three days, managed an impromptu diner stop Saturday morning and took out a Sunday newspaper ad touting commitments from more than 20,000 New Hampshire Republicans.
“We’re trying to make a statement here,” Dole said in an interview. “This is for real.”
Dole’s greeting reinforced the perception he is the man to beat in the GOP field, as have early polls showing him well ahead of everyone else here. But he hardly had the place to himself.
Patrick Buchanan called together veterans of his “Buchanan’s Brigade,” looking to prove the 37 percent he tallied here in a primary challenge to Bush three years ago was no fluke.
Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar was campaigning, too, hoping to convince New Hampshire voters to defy the campaign professionals and launch him as a contender.
He told reporters he had “great respect” for his rivals but, citing his experience as Indianapolis mayor prior to the Senate, said, “I think I have better qualifications.”
Due to join them over the weekend: GOP Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and Rep. Robert Dornan, a conservative firebrand from California.
The experts say next year will be different, because of a new primary calendar that moves most of the big states up into a five-week stretch following Iowa and New Hampshire. Because of that, many think the candidates won’t have as much time to spend in the libraries and town halls, let alone the small coffee klatches at the homes of party activists.
But Tom Rath thinks otherwise.
“Somebody will win here and that somebody will suddenly have a lot of momentum and it will be hard to stop them,” the veteran GOP activist said. “So it is worth making the effort.”