Deval’s New Hampshire Dilemma

Who to back, how to dis Mitt, and what about Nevada?
November 14, 2006 7:38:17 PM

THANKS FOR NOTHING, MITT: Romney bequeaths a big mess to incoming governor Patrick. But there’s ample opportunity for payback in New Hampshire.

Mitt Romney has left Deval Patrick a full raft of problems, from last Friday’s out-of-the-blue unilateral cuts to the state budget to a broken downtown tunnel system people are afraid to drive through. But perhaps Patrick’s trickiest minefield lies north of the border in New Hampshire, where the 2008 Democratic presidential primary contest is already scenting the late autumn air. Think of that distraction as akin to George Washington’s dreaded “foreign entanglements.”

Political observers tell the Phoenix that the Bay State’s governor-elect may be the second-most important Democratic Party “influencer” in the region, behind Granite State guv John Lynch.

“He has the ability to shape the election in ’08,” says Scott Ferson, president of Boston political-consulting and public-relations firm Liberty Square Group.

“He’s been a great subject of conversation in our circles,” says Karen McDonough, head of the New Hampshire National Education Association, one of the most sought-after endorsements in the state. “I see him as a key player.”

It’s easy to say that Patrick should focus on Massachusetts and stay out of the fray as long as possible, as powerhouse Democratic consultant and former Al Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile advises. “He has enormous responsibilities on his plate. The last thing that should cross his lips is New Hampshire,” Brazile says.

But that might not be realistic. The fight for the presidency is starting sooner than ever — Iowa governor Tom Vilsack officially declared his candidacy last week, the day after the midterm elections — and the New Hampshire primary will take place barely a year after Patrick is sworn in this January. Meanwhile, over the next few months, presidential hopefuls will be zeroing in on popular local figures’ help in raising money, recruiting staff, drawing media attention, and enlisting grassroots volunteers of the sort Patrick so famously cultivated during his successful campaign.

Not surprisingly, Patrick’s dance card is growing at a rapid clip. He has strong ties — and owes large favors — to at least four presidential wannabes, while others can make a strong case for being the true heirs to Deval’s grassroots revolution.

“He will get weekly calls from every presidential contender, along with flowers and dinner,” says Ferson.

He’ll also be asked, every time he wanders across the border, about the specter of Nevada’s nominating caucus, which the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has moved ahead of New Hampshire into second place on the presidential game board — much to the ire of New Hampshire party operatives.

There is precedent for a Bay State governor heading up I-93 to play kingmaker in dicey circumstances. In 1980, after President Jimmy Carter nearly lost in the Maine caucuses, Massachusetts governor Ed King campaigned for the future president in New Hampshire — against Senator Ted Kennedy. Carter rebounded with an 11-point win that propelled him to the nomination.

If Deval Patrick plays his cards right, he could boost his national profile, help New England and his party, and end up with the next US president owing him solid. Or, from Washington to Reno, he could make more enemies than friends.

Who do you love?
Patrick, unlike most New Hampshire influencers, knows almost nobody in that state, but has strong ties to many of the potential candidates. “The most difficult thing for a guy like Deval is getting beyond the personal relationships he has with the possible candidates,” says James Demers, a New Hampshire Democratic insider and one-time congressional candidate.

Start with New York senator Hillary Clinton: Patrick has known the Clintons since the mid 1980s. He worked for Bill’s Justice Department in the ’90s and is further indebted to the former president for two huge rallies and a mega-fundraiser held during the last weeks of his campaign.

Then there’s Illinois senator Barack Obama, who hosted events for Patrick in Chicago, Washington, and Boston as far back as October 2005. The two Harvard Law alums have been friends since the mid ’90s. Obama has also made the Hub a political staging ground for his own ambitions: he broke into national prominence at Boston’s 2004 Democratic convention, delivered UMass Boston’s commencement speech in June, and first broke the news that he was considering a presidential run while in town a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, John Kerry will be in desperate need of friends if he follows through with another presidential bid — and he certainly wouldn’t want to see his state’s governor endorse someone else. Kerry encouraged Patrick to run and introduced him to potential contributors, says Dan Payne, a political consultant who worked on his gubernatorial campaign. Can Patrick afford to antagonize one of the most powerful political leaders in Massachusetts — not to mention the senator who will chair both the Small Business Committee and a subcommittee on technology and innovation?

As if that weren’t complicated enough, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson has also been hinting at a presidential run. He’s the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, which anted $230,000 to the Patriot Majority Fund to run ads for Patrick and stood ready to spend much more had the race been closer.

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