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Battle for New England
Presidential hopefuls Kerry, Lieberman, and Dean vie for regional favor. Will a winner emerge, or will they cancel each other out?

THERE ARE JUST 711 days until the New Hampshire Democratic primary on January 27, 2004. Anyone who wants to run against President George W. Bush in the next presidential election needs to lay the groundwork in the Granite State right now. It has long been a political rule of thumb that anyone seeking to capture the Democratic Party’s nomination must win big in New Hampshire. But this time around, three prominent New England politicians — Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and Governor Howard Dean of Vermont — are all vying for the spot, which changes the political implications of the race. Together, the six New England states represent 35 electoral votes, providing a significant chunk of delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July. That means that if a New Englander wins New Hampshire, he will also likely win the battle for New England in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Even for the New Hampshire primary’s winner, the Democratic nomination won’t be a sure thing. Four other heavyweights — former vice-president Al Gore, House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and Senator John Edwards of North Carolina — are being touted as probable presidential candidates. But only New Englanders Kerry, Lieberman, Dean, and possibly Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut (whose sole focus right now seems to be getting on Don Imus’s radio program) are hoping to use a victory in neighboring New Hampshire to command regional loyalty in the Northeastern states, propelling them to the front of the primary pack.

Garrison Nelson, a political-science professor at the University of Vermont, argues that a regional New England candidate could perform well in 2004. "We’re in play. The New England states are now a player in presidential politics," says Nelson, who also teaches New England politics at Boston College. "Now that the New England states vote more Democratic than the rest of the nation, they become a unit with 35 electoral votes that can be used to balance off Pennsylvania, Ohio, or other large states."

The possibility of a battle for New England has largely escaped the notice of political pundits — with the exception of Boston Herald columnist Wayne Woodlief. "New Hampshire could become a kind of New England elimination match among Kerry, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut [Gore’s vice-presidential running mate in 2000], and Howard Dean," Woodlief observed in a December 16, 2001, column. The stakes are higher than even Woodlief suggests. It goes without saying that a successful candidate needs to win New Hampshire resoundingly enough to leave the Granite State with a build-up of momentum. But the front-loading of primaries in other states (in which their contests would take place closer in time to New Hampshire’s, thus giving the Granite State’s winner an edge), combined with the emerging electoral power of New England in presidential politics, may also enable a Democratic candidate to ride a New Hampshire victory all the way to the nomination.

"The good news is that none of them will have to take a plane," says Arnie Arnesen, a talk-show host on WNTK Radio and WMDS-TV. "They can all cab it."

THERE’S NOTHING NEW in the idea of basing a presidential campaign around a New England strategy. Kerry, Lieberman, and Dean are all banking that a big New Hampshire win can do for them what it did for Kennedy in 1960 and Dukakis in 1988. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy used his money and political operatives to rebuild the Democratic Party in New Hampshire, a base that helped propel Senator John F. Kennedy to the nomination. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, whom Kennedy had defeated in the 1952 Senate race, swept to victory in 1964 — only to be trounced by Senator Barry Goldwater at the Republican convention. (Maine senator Edmund Muskie, a Democrat, won New Hampshire in 1972, but by only nine points — not enough to carry him out of New England. In 1972, due in part to a publicized episode where Muskie may have cried in front of television cameras, McGovern came close enough to Muskie to be perceived as the winner.)

Next to Kennedy’s example, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential bid offers the most the most successful case of a New England politician harnessing the New Hampshire primary to his own advantage. Dukakis, then propped up by the economic boom known as the Massachusetts Miracle, boasted a popular reputation in the voter-rich region of Southern New Hampshire. Dukakis’s popularity in the state was boosted by his opposition to the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. The Massachusetts governor won big in New Hampshire — beating his closest opponent, Gephardt, by 16 points.

Dukakis’s victory in New Hampshire was so compelling that another Massachusetts Greek, Paul Tsongas, attempted to emulate his campaign model in 1992. With a voluminous economic plan that appealed to recession-scarred New Hampshire voters, Tsongas’s message caught on in the Granite State. But Tsongas beat his opponent, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, by only eight percent. Clinton declared himself the "Comeback Kid," and the rest is history.

"The Dukakis campaign in 1988 and the Tsongas campaign in 1992 demonstrated that a head start in New Hampshire can become a head start in the nominating process as a whole," says Ralph Whitehead, a political analyst based at UMass Amherst. "If Gephardt and Daschle are in the race, they have a corresponding advantage in Iowa. That means you may have an Iowa regional contest followed by a New Hampshire regional contest, and then the winner of Iowa and the winner of New Hampshire will run off."

That may be wishful thinking, according to some political observers. Thanks to the machinations of several states, including South Carolina, Michigan, Arizona, and Virginia, all of which want to move up the date of their primaries to within a week of New Hampshire’s, some political analysts think the Kennedy-Dukakis strategy is no longer possible. Why, some wonder, would presidential hopefuls spend an inordinate amount of time in New Hampshire, when contests in other fought-over primaries are merely a week away? With other, bigger primaries so close, it is argued, the New Hampshire primary will be marginalized — much like the Iowa caucus, a haven only to farm-friendly candidates.

Not so fast, says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh, who argues that the nation’s voters will still look to flinty New Hampshirites to perform the quirky, time-honored ritual whereby the state’s residents require even the most high-and-mighty candidates to eat in the town diner and meet in the town hall. "New Hampshire is still critical," argues Marsh. "The rest of the country still trusts New Hampshire to vet these candidates. You still need to do retail campaigning up there."

Besides, if evidence of New Hampshire’s continued viability were needed, the candidates themselves are providing it. Edwards, the North Carolinian, just visited New Hampshire two weeks ago. Even Reverend Al Sharpton, who is mulling a Jesse Jackson–like presidential run in 2004, is planning a visit to New Hampshire.

Now that cable news stations cover American politics 24 hours a day, seven days a week, New Hampshire could become even more important. Political events that take place in New Hampshire immediately resonate throughout the national consciousness. Any political innovation or skillful campaign move that takes place there will be instantly broadcast across the country. Likewise, any mistake or misstep could immediately stymie a candidacy.

"This time it looks like, in addition to these three cable networks, you’ll have an even tighter calendar," says Marsh. "You can ride the wave successfully across the country or, if you make a misstep, it makes it harder to recover."

Of the three Democratic candidates, who do you think will emerge as the winner? Or will they cancel each other out? Respond here in the Phoenix Forum.

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Issue Date: February 14 - 21, 2002
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