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MANCHESTER, N.H. — The Granite State junkies are starving.
The nation’s first presidential primary may be one year away, but their hunger for action fills the stuffy booths of the Red Arrow Diner, the renovated barn at the Bedford Village Inn and the hallways of the Grappone Conference Center.
New Hampshire’s top Republican activists report that the next cycle is off to the slowest start in decades. The private meetings and phone calls needed to build a grass-roots network simply haven’t happened yet — at least not to the extent that the Granite State political class has grown accustomed.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who the top 100 activists are in New Hampshire — the people they should be calling if they’re really serious about running for president. And those calls, to the best of my knowledge, aren’t being made,” said Ovide Lamontagne, a Manchester attorney and former Senate candidate who is among New Hampshire’s most powerful conservative voices. “We’re in a perpetual state of political activity in New Hampshire. This is our state sport. People are anxious to get involved.”
The slow start is more than a simple annoyance.
Lamontagne and several others told Roll Call last week that many local activists literally can’t wait for the field to develop. They have already begun to abandon previous alliances in favor of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — the two likely GOP candidates who have been most active in New Hampshire so far.
It’s no secret that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — a 2008 presidential candidate who enjoys strong name recognition and has a vacation home in Wolfeboro — is the early favorite to win New Hampshire’s Republican primary. Significant pieces of his 2008 machine remain. But given Romney’s pronounced absence from New Hampshire to date, some of his former supporters are starting to defect.
Just ask Claira Monier.
Ready for Action
She was absolutely glowing, a silver-haired flurry of smiles and energy, standing in an updated barn topped with a metallic cow weather vane that played host to Pawlenty’s Politics and Eggs premiere last week.
It wasn’t that Monier is excited about Pawlenty. She has already decided against supporting the Minnesotan. It was that the New Bedford Inn was oozing politics, even before 9 on a freezing Tuesday morning.
“I like the action,” she said with an infectious grin, just before tugging on her pink winter parka. “Nobody’s been doing anything in the New Hampshire primary.”
She may look like a rosy-cheeked grandma, but Monier is among New Hampshire’s best-connected Republican activists. At one time, she had President Ronald Reagan’s personal telephone number. Monier, the widow of a former state Senate president, ultimately served in the Reagan administration and later in state government.
To say she is a campaign veteran is an understatement.
She was a strong Romney supporter in the past election cycle. But his first scheduled event in New Hampshire this year isn’t until March 5. In Romney’s absence, she decided to back Santorum, who named Monier his New Hampshire state chairwoman this month.
“I think Santorum is just as smart as Mitt Romney. He’s also far more personable. He can connect with more ordinary people,” she told Roll Call, describing Romney as “robotic” at times.
But Monier admitted there’s another reason she left Romney’s camp.
“Santorum’s here working New Hampshire,” she said. “I haven’t seen Mitt Romney. He hasn’t asked me. Santorum asked me.”
Monier reported that Santorum has visited New Hampshire nine times in recent months, with three more visits booked.
It doesn’t matter that Santorum was trounced by 18 points in 2006, unseated by now-Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). He has an opportunity to become a favorite of New Hampshire conservatives simply by working harder and earlier than the others who might fill that role.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee locked up that position in 2008, when he exceeded expectations and earned respect by finishing third in the nation’s first GOP primary. But there has been no word from him so far this cycle.
In fact, Huckabee’s former state chairman, Cliff Hurst, told Roll Call that he had recently committed to Pawlenty, who has traveled to New Hampshire six times since last winter, including a two-day tour last week.
Hurst, the chairman of the Manchester Republican Committee, described Huckabee as a “close friend,” but he said that wasn’t enough.
“I just think that Pawlenty is a better fit for New Hampshire and the country,” Hurst said, noting that he was among a group recently invited to Minnesota to visit with Pawlenty.
Activists such as Hurst and Monier should not be underestimated, Lamontagne said.
“To the extent that other campaigns take New Hampshire for granted, you’re going to lose the Claira Moniers of this election cycle, who are opinion leaders in their own right,” he said. “She doesn’t decide the election outcome, but she can help to network and to build a coalition. She’s a seasoned pro.”
“If you wait, you start to lose the players,” Lamontagne said.
Perhaps the most high-profile absence this cycle is Sarah Palin.
Going Rogue or Sitting Out?
The former Alaska governor last made New Hampshire headlines by endorsing Kelly Ayotte’s ultimately successful Senate bid (beating Lamontagne) last fall. But Palin never visited the state on Ayotte’s behalf. In fact, local Republicans say she hasn’t been to New Hampshire in more than two years.
“I know that I personally have reached out to the Palin operation to get her up here ... to do a fundraiser. I never heard anything back,” Mike Dennehy, who served in 2007 as national political director for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), told Roll Call while munching on a pastrami sandwich at Cheers, a cozy restaurant a few blocks from the New Hampshire State House. “I know other organizations have reached out to her and never hear anything back. Not even a ‘thank you for the request.’ It just leads me to believe that she’s not interested in New Hampshire, or she’s not interested in running for president.”
The top elected official in New Hampshire’s largest city, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, considers himself “a free agent” this cycle, having backed McCain in 2008. Santorum and Pawlenty have visited his third-floor City Hall office multiple times so far, but Gatsas hasn’t heard a peep from the Palin camp.
He advised candidates against intentionally skipping New Hampshire, a move that some think Palin will make if she decides to seek the presidency.
“I think anybody that makes that mistake again would be silly,” Gatsas said, referring to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s fourth-place finish in 2008, often described as a “drive-by” effort.
At least one person thinks Palin could be an instant contender in New Hampshire, regardless of when she jumps into the race. It’s all about name recognition, according to former Rep. Jeb Bradley, now the state Senate Majority Leader.
“If Gov. Palin decided she was going to run and wanted to invest the resources in New Hampshire, she’d be a credible candidate right away. There’s no question about that,” Bradley told Roll Call last week from the confines of his new State House office as the temperature outside reached a high of 6 degrees. “Tim Pawlenty has got to fight for name recognition. He doesn’t have it yet. He’s going to have to live in New Hampshire. Palin can live on Fox and get name recognition. And Mitt already has it.”
The polling suggests Bradley may be right. And while Romney may be the early frontrunner, the race for second place is wide open. The conservative base thinks so, anyway.
Never Too Early Here
Carol McGuire could help play kingmaker next February.
She was among a group of conservatives in 2008 who backed Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a tea party favorite and libertarian who was popular in New Hampshire even before the tea party existed. A straw poll taken earlier in the month suggests his supporters could play a critical role in the primary. While Romney dominated, getting 35 percent in a poorly attended vote during a recent meeting of the state Republican Committee, Paul earned 11 percent.
While he isn’t expected to be a significant factor in 2012, some local Republicans said Paul’s former supporters could be.
“It’s a wide open field,” McGuire, a state Representative from Epsom, said while sipping a glass of red wine at a Concord reception for the Merrimack County Republican Committee last week. She came to hear Pawlenty’s stump speech but said she didn’t know much about him.
Asked about Romney, McGuire said she’s not “inclined to be in his camp,” largely because of Massachusetts’ health care overhaul under his watch.
“He’s got a solid bloc. People know him,” McGuire said of Romney. “But a lot of people who are more conservative-leaning are looking for somebody else.”
Indeed, Lamontagne, a 2008 Romney backer, has yet to settle on a contender.
“The activists who have come of age in this last cycle are very energized now about the presidential process, and they’re not committed,” he said while glancing at the glossy menu inside Manchester’s famed Red Arrow Diner last week.
There’s little doubt that Lamontagne’s endorsement could be influential.
Moments after he had settled into a booth, Lamontagne was recognized by a patron. “Are you going to run again?” a man in an adjacent booth shouted, adding: “I hope so.”
Lamontagne laughed it off, noting that the Republican base, especially newly engaged voters, are more excited than ever.
He has already met privately with Santorum and Pawlenty, but he said he isn’t convinced. Lamontagne suggested Huckabee has the potential to catch fire with conservatives but added that no one’s seen him in the state.
Between bites of an unusually large salad, he offered a bit of advice to prospective candidates: “It’s not early in New Hampshire.”
“The train is leaving the station when it heads out of the Iowa and starts heading here. And if you’re not on it in New Hampshire, you’re not going to have legs.”