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New Hampshire never fails to surprise

Say what you will, New Hampshire never disappoints.

Super Bowls and World Series and Wimbledon finals may be great dramas or duds. You can pay $80 for a ticket to La Boheme and find that Pavarotti is having an off-night. Once I even had a bad steak at the Golden Ox in Kansas City.

But the final week of the New Hampshire primary is a guaranteed winner. The wind can cut through seven layers of clothing and the slush can swamp your boots. But the politicking is predictably exquisite and you are certain _ not "likely" but "certain" _ to be surprised.

When New Hampshire's votes are counted on Tuesday, pundits, probably including myself, will pretend that there was a degree of predictability or even certainty about the results. "You could see it coming," they will say. Baloney. No one knows a week before the primary what these voters will do.

The reason is simple. The voters don't know themselves. Last weekend, my Washington Post colleagues and I phoned dozens of voters that the various Democratic campaigns had identified as undecideds from their canvasses. To call them undecided is to understate the case. Call them perplexed. Call them bewitched, bothered and bewildered. But keep calling them back, because as they will tell you, they have changed their minds three or four times already _ and they're far from finished.

The word "volatile" was invented somewhere near Nashua, the city where Ronald Reagan walked into a high school gymnasium one Saturday night in 1980 as an underdog debating George Bush and walked out two hours later as the runaway favorite for the primary victory that would make him president.

At St. Anselm's College, on the road to Goffstown, they offer a special prayer for the souls of pollsters who committed suicide the day after the New Hampshire primary. So often have the League of Women Voters' debates on the final weekend before the primary at St. Anselm's shuffled the standings that the college is known as the Bermuda Triangle of pollsters' reputations. In 1988, Bob Dole's pollster told him on the eve of the St. Anselm's debate that he had Bush beaten; maybe then, but not afterward _ and not two days later, when it counted.

As for the Democratic races, they are even crazier in the final days. Reporters have learned that they better be out knocking on doors in the triple-deckers on Manchester's west side and accosting shoppers at the Mall of New Hampshire on the last weekend before the primary, or they will miss the story. Someone will be moving at express-train speed as the hour of voting nears: Gene McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gary Hart in 1984 _ the list goes on.

If these voters were only chancy and changeable, then one might argue that the result is simply an accident of the primary's timing: Ask them back to the polls a day later and they might have changed their minds again.

But they are not really that capricious. They take very seriously the power that their position at the start of the election process gives them. They poke and prod the candidates _ politely, of course _ until they are satisfied that they know what makes them tick. And when they pick the best Republican and Democrat running, they do so with the knowledge that since 1952, no one has been elected president without winning in New Hampshire.

The contrast between audiences here and elsewhere was brought home the other evening when New York Gov. Mario Cuomo _ the Democrats' most famous presidential wanna-be _ delivered a stunning political stem-winder just across the border in Cambridge, Mass. Watching it on C-SPAN up here, you could see Cuomo dazzle the crowd of Kennedy School academics and Harvard students with his rhetoric.

The assembled eggheads asked nine questions, each more obsequious than the last. Put Cuomo in any New Hampshire high school and he would have been peppered with skeptical inquiries: Why did you leave Medicaid out of your accounting of welfare costs, governor? If you're so opposed to nuclear power, governor, are you in favor of dependence on foreign oil?

These high schoolers are fearless _ and informed. Twenty years ago, they had Ed Muskie spluttering explanations of his ambivalence on Vietnam. This year, they exposed the policy gaps in people as diverse as Pat Buchanan, Tom Harkin and Bob Kerrey. George Bush's handlers knew enough to keep him out of the high schools, where his banalities would have been embarrassing long before the bell rang to end the assembly hour.

Every four years, someone will ask why a nation this large, this diverse, lets a couple hundred thousand voters in an out-of-the-way corner of the country decide who should be president. The answer is obvious: Nobody does it better.

Washington Post Writers Group