New Hampshire stays perverse as ever

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Manchester, New Hampshire

There is one thing you cannot take away from the people of New Hampshire: they know their politics. And so they should. Once every four years they kick off the United States presidential campaign with the first primary contest, the results of which have historically set the course for the rest of the race.

Proof, as if any were needed, of their superior political awareness was provided this week by Carl Hubbard, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, who designed a quiz to compare his state's savvy with the rest of the nation's. And New Hampshire scored well.

Some examples: Question one (easy): "What job does Al Gore have?" Here, 93 per cent said Vice-President, compared with 84 per cent nationally. Question three (harder): "What majority of House and Senate is required to override a Presidential veto?" The answer? Two-thirds. In New Hampshire 70 per cent got it right compared with 37 per cent nationally.

New Hampshire, more familiarly known as the Granite State for its majestic mountains in the north, is a state of political junkies. And this is the time they get their fix. From now until voting day on 20 February, the seven principal hopefuls in the race for the Republican nomination for 1996 will criss-cross their state, visiting schools, churches, adult education centres and even private homes in the hope of winning their favour.

The audience here is no push-over. This is the state that has "Live Free or Die" emblazoned on car number plates; its overwhelmingly conservative citizenry has an ingrained suspicion of federal government, and especially of taxation. This year in particular they are in curmudgeonly mood. One after another they grumble about the cynicism of the election process, and many complain that the candidates on offer are simply not up to scratch. Take Jody Oberman, 25, and Ginger McCartin, 39, on a coffee break from their natural gas company in Manchester, a down-to-earth city of austere red brick that grew from cotton milling at the end of the last century. They will vote - that is the responsibility of everyone - but they will do so with unusual misgivings.

"Frankly, I'm depressed," says Ms Oberman, explaining that this will be her third primary vote, and for the first time she cannot find any candidate she really likes.

"Before, we always seemed to have a much clearer choice, but not this time. It's all very grim, and it shouldn't be like that. You should be happy voting for your president. I'm upset and I feel kind of helpless."

Ms McCartin concurs. She is irritated by the negativity of the television advertising which, thanks to the hugely expensive blitz launched by the media baron, Steve Forbes, is jamming the airwaves more than in previous races. "Really, it makes me wonder why we do bother to vote. Trying to find a great statesman in this country seems to get harder and harder."

The depth of disenchantment is a bit surprising. Four years ago, when President Bill Clinton almost got torpedoed by flaps over a past relationship with Gennifer Flowers and over his avoidance of the Vietnam draft, New Hampshire was in recession, with unemployment soaring. Things here, as in the rest of the country, are supposed to have turned around now.

But scepticism about the economic recovery is a common theme in discussions with voters. The statistics might look healthy, but people are still struggling, they insist. Eileen Kelly, 45, an antiques trader, is one who is not convinced. "They're trying to tell us that the economy is better, but I'm sorry, it's not better. No one has any money for little extras, and that's what life is meant to be all about."

Such dark spirits do not bode well for any known-quantity candidates and this time that means Mr Dole in particular. In two days here, I have barely found a soul who is determined to vote for him. In 1992, New Hampshire wounded George Bush by giving surprising support to Pat Buchanan who came a strong second with 37 per cent.

Mr Buchanan is here again, and he still has many fervent supporters. But he also is now a bit too familiar, and herein lies the surging popularity of Mr Forbes, this year's challenger to the establishment. Ms McCartin, Ms Oberman and Ms Kelly all concede that they will probably plump for Mr Forbes.

It helps that the principal Forbes pitch is for a flat 17 per cent tax on individuals and businesses. Even if a flat tax would mean many actually paying more than they do now, it sounds thoroughly subversive. And subversive is what New Hampshire likes to be.