Letter from America

New Hampshire sets stage for blazing American election season

By Jehangir Khattak (This article was written for the Pakistani magazine Defence Journal)

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New Hampshire primaries results have set the stage for a blazing election season in America. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ability to prove all scientific data generated to predict her certain defeat in the Granite State primaries and John McCain’s resurgence despite almost dried up funds has made the 2008 presidential election one of the most closely contested in recent years.

The snow-clad city of Manchester (NH) and its adjacent state capital Concord and elsewhere in the sprawling countryside all were dotted with political shops set up in school gymnasiums, town halls, small country-style cafes, restaurants and every conceivable space that could be used to impress the voters. The candidates too used every available media to reach out to the voters. Thus voters in New Hampshire were in no mood of celebrity gossip rather they were practically in the middle of almost daily gossip with celebrities.

Kathy Gunst was thrilled to see Bill Clinton talking to about a dozen of his admirers outside a restaurant at lunch time in Exeter, a small town in vicinity of Manchester. “It was deeply intimate to listen to a former President of the United States on a side walk,” Kathy, told Defense Journal. Kathy said Bill talked about different projects his foundation had launched. He talked less about politics and more about environment and some international issues like Turkey’s joining the European Union.
It could be because the locals were so used to celebrity talk on roadside pavement that not all walking by opted to listen to Bill. Some of the former President’s admirer’s had a photo opportunity as well, giving a valuable addition to their personal albums. So was the style of almost all the candidates who wouldn’t miss an opportunity of public engagement in an effort to woe New Hampshirites, considered hard nuts to crack when it comes to winning their vote.

A local joke speaks of their maverick political nature. “I am still undecided after having heard the candidates and shaken their hand two times,” is the common phrase used by the state voters to force the candidates make more rounds of their communities or subject them to a “special” treatment. Little wonder New Hampshire has one of the highest numbers of undecided or independent registered voters in the country. Forty-two percent of the state voters are registered as independent and can legally swing in favor of either party on polling day.

New Hampshire’s verdict in favor of “experience” of Hillary Clinton and John McCain brought embarrassment to many pollsters who became a laughing stock amongst political commentators. “Hillary’s campaign is not salvageable,” a confident Dr. Andrew Smith, Director of University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said hours before the polling. He was briefing a group of journalists from New York-based ethnic media who were transported to the frozen state, the 46th largest in the US, by Independent Press Association to afford them a rare chance to cover American elections. Dr Smith has been a pollster for twenty years and America’s top media houses, including CNN, have benefited from his work. Smith criticized the managers of Hillary’s campaign and opined that after her expected defeat in New Hampshire, she needs to shuffle her team.

Andrew Smith couldn’t be blamed much for his doomsday predictions about Hillary either as the data he had generated did show all the visible signs of her imminent defeat. Like Andrew, majority of the pollsters had given Barak Obama at least nine percentage point lead over the former First Lady on the eve of the polls. However, voters defied the tone and tenor set by political pundits and the media by giving a verdict that virtually gave a dramatic twist to the primaries.

Hillary ran a consistent campaign despite defeat in Iowa caucus, highlighting her experience in handling both domestic and foreign policy issues. She tried to make voters believe that she could resolve America’s pressing problems using her political wisdom and experience. A day before election, the woman inside the former First Lady could not control her emotions and broke into tears while focusing on national problems and the challenges she faced during her campaign.

Political commentators made all sorts of predictions following the incident. Some said Hillary’s tears were her political suicide and whatever chances she had for a victory in New Hampshire had grounded after the incident. Although her political rivals did not ridicule her yet John Edwards did point out that it was important for American Commander-in-Chief to be a person of strong nerves.
However, the election results showed that the incident in fact did help Hillary. Available data indicates that she won mainly on the basis of votes she secured from the elderly and the women. Even the weather looked to be on Hillary’s side on the voting day. Despite almost two feet of snow in most parts of the state, temperatures remained high and unusually pleasant. That was one of the reasons attributed to the highest ever turnout of almost half a million voters in a primary in the state.

Following his shocking defeat, the proponent of “change” Baraka Obama, remained defiant and tried to calm down many jangled nerves in his camp. The 46 years old Illinois Senator reassured a cheering jam-packed crowed of supporters in Nashua High School South gymnasium: “I am still fired up and ready to go.” Obama’s supporters gave a brave face to the unexpected defeat, yet they could not hide the gloom on their faces.

In an emotional speech, Obama reassured his supporters that they still had to go a long way to prove that they could change America for good. “The movement is on, change is on its way, America is reviving,” Obama told his charged supporters. His concession speech was intelligent and had all the ingredients of a determined fighter who is not willing to give in till the last. “We can do it” was the simple message the Senator had for his supporters and detractors. The air in the Nashua High School gymnasium was electrified by the shock and determined Obama’s reassuring speech which gracefully transcended the party and race lines and had an unmistaken message of unity, way above partisan politics.

“Martin Luther King left the door open and this guy is walking through it,” said Dave Bedford, an attorney, who had seen the election campaign of John F Kennedy in the 60s. “Obama has more charisma than JFK,” Dave told Defense Journal while bucking up his hero inside the gymnasium. “He is the guy America needs as he has the power to unite us all,” he added.

Almost all the candidates focused on issues sensitive to the state voters while some shied away from mentioning those potentially damaging. For example Obama talked of bringing American troops back from Iraq, ending America’s dependence on foreign oil and promoting bio fuels, closing Guantanamo Bay prison, he did not touch immigration, an extremely touchy subject in New Hampshire, which is also home to one of the biggest refugee population in the northeast. Obama knew that focus on immigration could bring his popularity down.

Same was the case with John McCain, the so-called “comeback kid” in NH. In his election rallies, he refused to get provoked even by several posters and placard-holding protestors opposing his stance on immigration. McCain kept on marketing in his retail politics his strengths such as experience, steadfastness, “straight talk”, broad vision and grasp and unmatched understanding of America’s domestic and international challenges. He supported Iraq war and promised to get Osama bin Laden even if he has to follow him to the gates of hell. He also mentioned situation in Pakistan and stressed that America needs a leader who has the ability to act aggressively but with wisdom in war against terrorism.

McCain is one of very few American leaders who did not hesitate to give full credit to Pakistan for its sacrifices in the war against terror. He is also considered a strong supporter of President Pervez Musharraf. He was probably the only politician after President Bush who took a public stand in support of Musharraf following assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27. Pakistan in general and Musharraf in particular had been subjected to severe criticism by the American media and senior leaders, including almost all the presidential candidates.

Unlike his political opponents’ chartered passenger jets, 71 years old cash-strapped McCain is seen frequently traveling by commercial flights these days. The Senator’s success in New Hampshire primaries had become a big question mark following Huckabee and Romney’s better performances in Iowa caucus. However, the Vietnam veteran changed his campaign strategy for New Hampshire wisely, using all the political cards under his belt.

Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts Governor and another Republican challenger, took hard-line on issues that he promised to tackle if elected President. He told a packed gymnasium of McKelvie Middle School, Bedford, a Manchester neighborhood, how he could use his skills as a shrewd businessman and experience to fix the country’s many complicated problems such as healthcare, education, social security, economy, Iraq and Afghanistan wars and immigration. Romney is one of few candidates who has taken a tough stance on immigration. He is a proponent of complete ban on immigration.

Using his oratory skills, the millionaire Republican tried to combine his charisma and experience to make the voters believe that he is the only contender with right credentials to do the job. Romney is a former CEO of Bain and Company, a management consulting firm, and the co-founder of Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm. He is heavily investing his personal fortunes in his campaign and is believed to have so far pumped in almost 17 million dollars out of his own pocket. Romney’s heavy investment in politics aside, his journey to winning the Republican nomination remains bumpy. He is yet to score a victory, which could be on its way in Michigan where he was running neck and neck with McCain till our going to the Press.

Romney tries to present himself as a role model who was a successful businessman and a governor and thus qualifies to be the nation’s leader as well. He has a long “to do list” as well that he not only spells out in his rallies but also displays them on a white board. However, despite his communication skills, he himself seems to be not very sure of what he is presenting to the voters. For example, while explaining his Healthcare Connector Proposal before the audience at Bedford, Romney confessed that his proposal might not be perfect but at least it would provide a sound beginning for “change” that is so desperately needed in America’s breaking healthcare system. “Stop letting the perfect to be the enemy of good” was his appeal to the voters. Thus Romney ended up getting the support of only those who had already idealized him. He remains a big question mark for the undecided voters, who are virtually emerging as the kingmakers in some of the most crucial states. Not surprisingly, not too many undecided voters supported him in New Hampshire either and thus his second position.

Mike Huckabee, the emerging heavyweight amongst the Republicans, is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, a public speaker, and a musician playing bass guitar in his rock band Capitol Offence. Following his dramatic victory in Iowa caucus, Huckabee was expected to do better in New Hampshire too. However, he failed to keep his winning streak and stood third on January 8.
Huckabee did not campaign as vigorously as many had thought he would, though he did try to impress New Hampshirites with his guitar skills. Huckabee has at least two things in common with Bill Clinton. Like Bill, he remained Governor of Arkansas and he too was born in Clinton’s hometown of Hope, Arkansas. A diehard evangelist, Huckabee has emerged as the direct voice of the church in mainstream politics. In his campaign too, he is banking on the vast evangelical vote bank across the country.

Unlike Romney, Huckabee has soft position on immigration as he supports pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Like McCain, he supports Iraq war and troops surge. An avowed social conservative, Huckabee opposes abortion, same sex marriage and civil unions. His economic vision also shows his conservative thinking. That’s why his campaign is more selective and usually concentrates on regions with higher population of evangelical Christians. He is expected to prove a bigger threat to McCain and Romney in the Bible Belt states in the country south.

Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has already abandoned his presidential bid following his dismal performance in New Hampshire while former Senator from North Carolina John Edwards is still in the race as so far he has maintained his third position. However, it is believed that he will stay in the race as long as he has the funds available to run his campaign. Despite family problems, Edwards so far has proved to be a determined fighter, and he has admirers too. Edwards’ wife was recently diagnosed with cancer. But many analysts believe that if he also withdraws, it could help Obama more than Hillary Clinton. And if he thinks of endorsing Obama, Hillary could be in deep trouble.

The primaries in the Granite state brought not only hordes of visitors and about 2400 journalists but also tones of business. Though no official figures were immediately known as to how much the businesses benefited in the first week of January, yet it is believed to be substantial. According to New Hampshire Union Leader, a Manchester-based daily, in 2000, the primary had a one-year economic impact of 264 million dollars or roughly 0.6 percent of the state’s total economic output.
As the primaries move to other states, so will the economic benefits to some of the tattering local economies. But it is yet to be seen who will come up with the magic wand to stave off the imminent economic recession in the US. Some believe that the recession has already set in but the panacea is still not in sight and so is America’s new leader.

The writer can be reached at mjehangir@aol.com

AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Executive Producer, is a journalist with more than 40 years experience as a public radio program host and producer of documentaries, podcasts and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for the Feet in 2 Worlds project.