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 TIME on politics TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with TIME and TIME

The sometimes contradictory effect of the New Hampshire primary

By Ian Christopher McCaleb/CNN

January 7, 2000
Web posted at: 11:22 a.m. EST (1622 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) - If the arduous U.S. presidential election process could be compared to a sporting event, its most likely cousin might be the Tour de France bicycle race. The New Hampshire primary would match up well with the Tour's key first phase.

The Tour de France is broken up into numerous stages, each based upon a full day's ride. Various riders might win individual stages, but it is the rider with the best overall results who wears the yellow jersey of the leader.

On February 1, New Hampshire holds its long anticipated, first-in-the-nation presidential primary. All 50 states will follow suit over the next 16 weeks.

The six top GOP contenders and the two Democrats each hope to emerge from the Granite State's voting fray in the early morning hours of February 2, with one member of each party the proud recipient of the election's equivalent of that yellow jersey.

The importance and influence of the New Hampshire primary cannot be understated. Long established as the event that party dark horses and underdogs must take full advantage of to fuel their campaigns through the feverish months of February and March, the primary is significant for the initial boost it brings its winners and close runners-up, and for the scars it metes out to those who make a poor showing.

The virtual yellow jersey -- a victory in New Hampshire -- most campaign planners reason, will serve as a banner that will bring more attention to their man through the scads of primaries that follow in the next 60 days. A victory in New Hampshire means elevated national attention, chances for improved fund-raising, more television time, and a possible narrowing of the field if rivals choose to throw in their towels.

Sen. Bill Bradley and Vice President Gore participated in a town hall forum in New Hampshire last year.  

The event is just as important to the people of New Hampshire.

The tiny, geographically diverse state, populated by a scant 1.5 million people, is infused with cash and is the center of national media attention in the months leading up to the primary. The state's sometimes cranky, independent-minded voters take great pride in the role they play in the national election process.

And from the pre-dawn hours of the 1st of February, when the residents of the tiny, picturesque village of Dixville Notch assemble in front of network TV cameras to cast the first votes of the 2000 election season, to the moment each candidate's state headquarters shut down early on the morning of February 2, New Hampshire will be seen as the center of the United States.

The voting personality of the average New Hampshirite is characteristic of the state's primary that fuels its lore and magnifies its long-term significance. New Hampshirites -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- are not often likely to adhere to the wishes of their national party elders. In fact, they often revel in their opportunity to throw a spanner into the best laid plans of the major parties.

For example, New Hampshire's voters handed Patrick Buchanan, then a Republican, a victory in 1996, while the late Massachusetts Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas -- regarded by many as dour and completely unelectable -- took the state from future president Bill Clinton in 1992.

This year's primary results could well follow that trend. Republican Senator John McCain -- given little chance of a stellar performance just two months ago -- is now leading in polls against presumed national front-runner George W. Bush. Meanwhile, former New Jersey Democratic Senator Bill Bradley is performing well against Vice President Al Gore.

Vice President Al Gore  

And therein lies the mystery of the New Hampshire primary. A candidate can peddle away from this first primary wearing that virtual yellow jersey, but he may not keep it for long. Still, he will gain enough notoriety to keep his campaign effort alive for weeks, perhaps months, as fringe candidate Buchanan was able to do in 1996.

Some candidates may say that New Hampshire isn't as important to them as later primaries, arguing the upcoming February 19th South Carolina Republican primary could be just as key to their fortunes, or that the later "Yankee" and "Super Tuesday" primaries are worth the concentrated attention of hopefuls from both parties.

Such rationalizations should be taken with a grain of salt. The New Hampshire primary acts as an effective electoral "sifter," in a sense. The New Hampshire vote is not so kind to those who end up at the bottom of the state's tally sheet. Many in the 50 year history of the primary have opted to drop from the race entirely after taking beatings at the state's polling places.

Indeed, New Hampshire in February can be an icy cold, snow-covered, forbidding place for many presidential candidates. For one or two, it could become a paradise balmy enough to race a bicycle through.

After that, how long the New Hampshire winners get to wear their yellow jerseys will be up to the rest of the country. And New Hampshire's voters will regard their efforts as a job well done.


National attention turns to Election 2000 anticipation

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