Soon after I arrived in New Hampshire, I hit Mitt Romney in the face.
Romney was running for president – the first time – in 2008, and he showed up at Bedford High School on primary day for a photo-op and a spurt of last minute hand-shaking in the frigid early January cold. I was CNN’s campaign embed, assigned to follow Romney’s every step during his travels. On that day, I was also assigned to hold a boom mic for our photographer Chris Turner.
The arriving Romney was quickly surrounded in the high school parking lot by a swarm of reporters and cameras. For a brief moment, I looked down to scan my BlackBerry — remember those? — without paying attention to the candidate-on-the-move. I looked up, pivoted, and accidentally swung the long microphone directly right into Romney’s handsome mug.
Romney twirled like a malfunctioning R2-D2, but was unfazed. He seemed more concerned with escaping the pack of reporters than the piece of television equipment that just whacked him on the forehead. I was mortified, of course, but no one seemed to notice. It was just another cramped mob of press on the campaign trail. Stuff happens.
The moment of confusion, though, was only the latest of several weird moments in New Hampshire, a state I was struggling to figure out.
The preceding year, I had been living in South Carolina, planted there as CNN pioneered state-based producers during campaign season. As a native southerner, it was easy to fall in love with the place and its outlandish brand of politics. I was then called up to Iowa in the run-up to the 2008 caucuses, and found comforting similarities. The people were friendly, food-loving and earnest.
Then it was on to New Hampshire.
Unlike the wide-open spaces I had experienced covering campaigns, in New Hampshire you could drive 15 minutes and be in an entirely different town. Streets were covered in muddy, sloppy snow. Events were held in claustrophobic bars, diners and inns. Reporters, their bulky coats and sweaters crackling with static electricity, jostled for space.
Everyone seemed cranky. And the biggest insult: Patriots fans were everywhere.
Granted, it was the depth of winter and I wasn’t seeing the state at its finest, but I couldn’t wait to get out. I heard Florida was nice at that time of year.
It wasn’t until later that summer, covering John McCain in the general election, that I came to understand why New Hampshire holds such a special place in our political imagination.
Steve Duprey, the McCain adviser who dubbed himself the “Secretary of Fun” and dedicated himself to cheering up the traveling press corps, is a garrulous New Hampshire native. He was biased, of course, but he schooled me on the honorable dedication of New Hampshire voters — their fealty to the process, their skepticism of phony platitudes and contrived television ads, their willingness to call out a presidential candidate.
As it did in 2000, the DNA of New Hampshire allowed McCain, his campaign broke and forgotten, to resurrect himself with an endless succession of town hall meetings in which he delivered self-styled “Straight Talk” about the Iraq war.
His heroic 2008 comeback story has a dash of mythology sprinkled on it — Romney, the longtime New Hampshire frontrunner, was collapsing after his Iowa loss and McCain was the strongest alternative — but the strategy worked nonetheless. It’s hard to think McCain could have pulled it off anywhere other than in the Granite State.
So when I started going back to New Hampshire after the 2008 election, I realized that I had been trying too hard to figure the place out. Before, I had heard all the corny talk about how New Hampshire voters are “flinty” and “fiercely independent,” but had dismissed those characterizations as the kind of lazy pundit cliches that they are. I was trying to understand what New Hampshire voters were really like.
But it turns out that is what they’re really like. A good many of them, at least. Voters here ask tough questions with a wary eye, have a reasonable grasp of the issues and take their primal role in picking presidential candidates seriously.
At a time when outside spending, social media, and partisan news are transforming the presidential process a mind-numbing, nihilistic slog fueled by money and phony umbrage … there is still New Hampshire. Not every long-shot can catch fire in the first-in-the-nation primary state — sorry, Jon Huntsman, the odds still favor the big dogs — but if lightning can strike anywhere, it’s here.
So, New Hampshire, this Hambycast is for you.
Now get me a donut.