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Sunday, January 25, 2004

Primary Source on the Primary

As advertised on Friday, I was up in New Hampshire from late Saturday afternoon until late this afternoon checking out some of the primary-related program activities.

After picking up a friend and loyal DK reader (who fortunately knows how to read maps and tell me where to go--I am hopelessly without a sense of direction), we zoomed north to Nashua, arriving around 4:30 yesterday. The Sheraton Tara Hotel there, about 100 yards across the Massachusetts border, was hosting the "100 Club" Dinner, where all candidates except Sharpton were appearing. The "100" meant that you had to pay $100 to attend, and of course we didn't do that; we just loitered around the lobby for a good while, observing the crowd and picking up as much campaign paraphernalia as we could from the booths people had set up (I scored a DVD of Wesley Clark's "American Son"). I hesitate to make sweeping conclusions on the supporters of the various candidates based only on the small samples we observed this weekend, but I will say that I found the combination of union types and college kids backing Dean at the hotel to be quite a mix. After waiting a while for entrances and only getting the likes of Carol Moseley Braun and Patrick Leahy, we headed out to the parking lot, where we found an impromptu SEIU rally for Dean, which the police broke up to a round of boos. Chris Sullentrop attended the dinner and has a funny article summarizing it.

We drove north to Concord, where we shared a pizza (I swear, Concord, New Hampshire, must have the most pizza parlors per capita of any city in the US) and then headed into the cold to look around for the campaign offices, where we hoped we might learn news of any events that hadn't been listed on the web before we left. But it was really cold, and Kerry's office was the only one on the main street in the middle of downtown Concord. We didn't bother hunting around for others, instead continuing to head north another hour to my uncle's house in central NH. This was the toughest part of the trip, as I had trouble finding the house and then the car stalled, leading me to fear we would be marooned in frigid rural New Hampshire. Fortunately, the car started working again, and we found the house, but not until I had let loose quite a few expletives. And the kicker is that we went far out of our way since all the events we ended up hitting were in the south, just as close to Boston. Staying in a Manchester hotel room would've cost money but saved on the agony. Oh well.

Anyway, we were back at it this morning, driving south to Manchester for a Dean women's issues event at Southern New Hampshire University. The crowd was massive and we stupidly rolled in at 9:20 for a 9:30 event (I didn't want to get up too early though, and it was friggin' -8 degrees when we got into the car to leave at 8:30). We ended up in an overflow room that Dean luckily did visit prior to going to the main room for the address. I liked Dean in person a lot, as he spoke off-the-cuff for five minutes or so while standing ten yards away. He offered a funny take on his infamous post-Iowa speech, saying matter-of-factly, in dull tones, which states he would be going to next, adding, "and I'm so excited, I could scream." He is a short guy, as rumored.

The substance of the women's event was nice too because it wasn't just a run-of-the-mill stump speech (Dean sort-of apologized before beginning because he wasn't offering the "red meat" some people expected). Dean earned points with me by putting forward some policy ideas that you don't hear discussed much, if at all--plans he has for loans to small business, early childhood education, welfare reforms to help single moms, etc. It's kind of a shame none of that seems to be getting onto TV, since a few TV reports I've seen over the past couple of hours all just showed the same clip of Judy Dean introducing her husband. She read a brief introduction off a laptop screen (she did appear for a few seconds in the overflow room, arm-in-arm with her husband and not uttering a word there). I guess the big story, as reporters see it, is that Judy is out on the trail at all.

The event, including Dean's overflow-room antics, was on C-SPAN, I believe. C-SPAN is invaluable at times like this, a place you can see everything unfiltered, even when candidates are chatting with individual folks who come up to pester them after an event ends. Dean said in the overflow room that C-SPAN was "having a cow" because they were on live.

The one thing I didn't like at the Dean appearance was the vibes I got from some of his supporters (again, a non-scientific sample). These people seemed pretty self-involved and too wrapped up in Dean-as-messiah. One woman standing near me complained that "Kerry keeps changing his message!" and "it's infuriating!" What I found telling was that a kid in the overflow room led a chant starting "I'm a Dean-o-crat!" No, I wanted to yell, we're Democrats first and foremost, not partisans of our chosen guy in the primary only. Altering the world Democrat--and I doubt the kids doing the chant really thought this all through--had things backward.

Moving on, our next stop was a John Edwards rally in a junior high gym in Nashua. Josh Marshall apparently was there, and his comments are spot on. We got there early enough to actually get seats before the place filled up, eventually with hundreds more (according to Edwards) in an overflow somewhere. Jean Meserve of CNN came to our row and asked if anyone was a "hard-core Edwards supporter," seemingly shopping for a quote. No one responded in the affirmative and she moved on (also spotted there were NPR's Mara Liasson and former Mass state senator and gubernatorial candidate Warren Tolman). The vibe I got from some of the Edwards volunteers was that they were some ambitious young people who cynically had calculated that Edwards was the guy who could win and wanted to be on board early. Why do I say this? They all were walking around, calling back and forth about where there were open seats when it was plain enough and all they did was make it harder to pass by. They just seemed to want to be involved in everything, not out of the loop (I also recognized someone I've met before who fits my overly-ambitious charge). The guy leading the pep chants before the candidate arrived annoyed me too.

Edwards gave his standard speech about the "two Americas", the evils of lobbying, his response to critics who say he's too inexperienced, etc. Marshall is right about Edwards and his gestures, which look like he's the star pupil at elocution school. When he hits a strong applause line, Edwards puts on wide grin and beams to the audience. I think he would have a better presidential aura, one to match the perfect hair and gestures, if he were only a bit taller. Overall, I agree with Marshall's point that when Edwards is speaking, he's pretty impressive, but he never quite does it for me--a solid A-minus. He randomly had Glenn Close in tow.

Marshall somehow got over to the Clark event at 1:00, while we just moved on to the Kerry rally across town. Bad symbolism for Edwards: we (and several others) went from the Edwards rally at the Nashua junior high school to the Kerry rally at the Nashua senior high school. The Kerry thing was in an enormous gym with people in bleachers on one side, unions members and veterans standing on risers behind the platform on another side (in front of an enormous flag), and two walls of cameras. The platform was in the middle of the gym, with some standers, us included, alongside. While waiting, we were both interviewed by an excitable talk radio host from Seattle, Dave Ross of KIRO 710. Hey Pops, do you know the guy?

The Kerry event itself was a major show of force, trying to foster the impression that he is the guy with the most backing. Ted Kennedy was there offering some old-time religion--I wish he were running for president--along with his less exciting son Patrick, who has now become a Kerry supporter with Gephardt out. And Jean Shaheen was there doing some talking, and Teresa Heinz said a few words, and some Nashua pol said some stuff, and Heinz's son made some remarks, and Max Cleland showed up, and a bunch of members of Congress were in attendance to wave to the crowd, and Tolman was there too, and there were probably more I missed. The crowd totaled over 2,000 according to media reports I've heard.

Kerry did a rather typical stump speech, firing off his favorite lines about how he knows something about aircraft carriers for real, bring it on, etc. Marshall correctly notes that one seemingly-new rhetorical flourish was turning "Mission Accomplished" on its head by asking "is your mission accomplished on health care?" and so on for other issues. Kerry has come a long way in his presentation, dropping most of his stilted verbal ticks, though he did let loose a few times with constructions like, "And I say to you..."

On the way out of the packed gym, I saw Ceci Connolly packing up her laptop. I'll be interested to see how she writes up the event for Monday's Post (Connolly Watch is coming soon) since I actually was there myself too. I also gained a renewed understanding of the challenge campaign reporters face, squeezing themselves and their gear into these overcrowded spaces (the Kerry rally was really hot inside, made worse by the multiple layers I was wearing on account of the outdoor conditions), and having to write something reasonably coherent on the spot. This is not writing that is crafted from a comfortable desk in a climate-controlled office, a fact I think we too frequently forget (I know I have forgotten it at times).

I don't want to draw any overly broad conclusions from the trip. Dean happened to be somewhat more impressive than the other two substantively, but that was based more on the happenstance of the types of events we attended. Edwards would win the election if it were an oratorical competition. Kerry put on a showing of how much institutional backing he has. The broader lessons I picked up are an appreciation of how much time it takes to go to these things (and the need to plan better so as not to miss out on Clark or Lieberman in the future) and a resolve not to go above the southern cities of New Hampshire when we're having unseasonably cold weather in late January.