Rocky stars

Clinton, Obama, and the people who really make or break Presidential dreams in the Granite State
February 14, 2007 2:12:51 PM

ACTIVE DUTY: Clinton and Obama have to break away from rock-star politics and find time to meet with party activists in small groups

DURHAM, NH, February 12, 2007 — Hillary narrowly won the opening round of New Hampshire presidential campaigning this week. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — political rock stars both — gave strong performances at large rallies where supporters had to be turned away from overcrowded gyms and at small gatherings in local living rooms. But it was Clinton who made the most headway among behind-the-scenes party activists — where it matters most.

It may be 11 months before the New Hampshire primary (and nearly two years before the national presidential election), but these are critical days for the swarm of candidates vying for the contributions, assistance, and endorsements of Granite State activists. What happens now will likely determine who has the resources and manpower to compete when the real campaigning begins this fall, and who ultimately prevails next January.

And so the heat is on. Clinton packed high-school gyms in Concord and Keene over the weekend, and Obama’s “town meeting” at the University of New Hampshire in Durham resembled the kind of rally candidates typically hold in the last days before the primary, not a year beforehand. Such extraordinary interest, truly unusual at this early stage of a presidential election cycle, is the kind of problem any candidate would love to have.

But it is still a problem: the people who traditionally matter most in New Hampshire primary politics — the influencers — don’t want to see candidates in a high-school gym or even at a 125-person house party. The New Hampshire influencers are the state’s current and former officeholders, labor leaders, special-interest lobbyists, and big-money donors, who help shape other people’s views about the candidates. They are people like Manchester’s popular former mayor Bob Baines and David Lang of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire. Some, like Terry Shumaker of the National Educators Association, can move mountains for (or against) a candidate. And some have credibility won through long-time involvement with key issues, such as the environment or reproductive choice.

But they all want face-to-face time — which is not going to be easy to get from the two superstar candidates, who are surrounded by a media-and-groupie circus everywhere they go.

“It’s harder to get to them, harder to have that personal conversation,” says Catherine Corkery, lobbyist for the New Hampshire Sierra Club.

Both Clinton and Obama tried to juggle the dual tasks of stoking the public’s enthusiasm and stroking the influencers’ egos, in their quick trips through the state. Clinton attended three moderate-size house parties, and held a sit-down event with roughly 100 legislators and labor leaders Sunday morning. Obama had one very large house party, and also met with some legislative leaders and policymakers in Concord.

But a lot of important people are still waiting to hear from the two candidates. The only contact Laura Thibault, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire, had with either candidate, for instance, was when she introduced herself to Obama during his walk along Main Street. “He was very friendly, and that was that,” she says. Doug Bogan, program director of Clean Water Action New Hampshire, couldn’t even get in to see Obama at the huge Durham event. “I tried to get a ticket, but it was all sold out,” he says. Thibault and Bogan are the kind of respected veteran activists to whom those Democrats who base their votes in part on reproductive-choice and environmental issues turn. “We get a lot of phone calls from our private donors and our members, almost as soon as someone declares themselves a candidate,” Thibault says. “We’re already getting those calls.”

On this first trip to New Hampshire, Hillary covered the most bases — thanks largely to her astute hiring of New Hampshire political insiders like Karen Hicks and Liz Purdy, who made sure the New York senator reached out to some of the state’s most important influencers, the ones who hold the most sway over the most people.

For example, Hicks made sure Clinton placed a pre-visit personal phone call to Mark Mackenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO. Clinton’s staff also invited Mackenzie to her Sunday-morning no-media function at the Maison in Manchester (though he was sick and could not attend).

Obama, however, did not call. On Monday, his staff extended a last-minute luncheon invitation to Mackenzie and his staff, who could not attend on such short notice. “Obama has not reached out to the AFL-CIO yet in New Hampshire,” Mackenzie says.

Perhaps Obama or Clinton can carry the New Hampshire primary without the goodwill of people like Mackenzie. But four years ago Howard Dean made that bet and lost.

“The media stuff, the big events they’re going to run — that’s not going to get [candidates] where they need to be in New Hampshire,” says Mackenzie.

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