New Hampshire primary voters get up close and personal with GOP candidates

What do you learn when you try to meet every single Republican presidential candidate in person?

You learn that Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) is awful at small talk. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a ham, breaking into funny voices and goofy faces. And former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is . . . not like that at all. “Like talking to your doctor,” one voter remembered.

And, as it turns out, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. is surprisingly calm after he’s been bitten by a goat.

The voters who attempt this feat during primary season — trying to meet every serious candidate, preferably more than once — are the earnest heart of this politics-obsessed state. They make New Hampshire what New Hampshire is: a place where the contest to lead a nation of 312 million takes on the intimacy of a junior high student council race.

But, during this chaotic primary system, even some of these people — the Platonic ideal of the American voter, close enough to look each candidate in the eye — are still struggling to make a choice.

And so, one night this week, Andy and Betsie Bridge decided they couldn’t make up their minds until they had gone to see former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) in the flesh.

For the third time.

“You never know. We could always change our minds,” Betsie said. She had been leaning toward Paul, but wanted to hear Gingrich go through his arguments again.

“Don’t you think you should go and hear him?” Andy said.

The Republican candidates’ long courtship of New Hampshire culminates on Tuesday with the state’s first-in-the-nation primary. Leading up to the primary, the major candidates have spent 229 days here, according to the New Hampshire TV station WMUR. Huntsman leads with 72.

Their events started with small coffees and dinners last winter and built to big, stage-managed rallies this week. By now, it’s easy to lose track of how many potential future presidents you’ve met.

“I’ve seen Rick Perry, I think, four times. Might have been five times,” said Spec Bowers, a New Hampshire state legislator (R) and innkeeper from Sunapee. “Rick Santorum, I saw him in a group of maybe half a dozen people. That’s probably a half-hour session. So, it’s like talking to your next-door neighbor.”

Bowers’ list went on. Former pizza executive Herman Cain. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), twice. Paul and Gingrich, at least three times apiece. And other candidates whom nobody’s heard of: the rare and hard-to-collect specimens who fill out the 2012 complete set.

“Well, there’s a guy who calls himself ‘Vermin Supreme,’” Bowers said. “He was dressed in some crazy costume. At first glance, you might think it’s a hat. Then you looked closely and you realized that it was a long boot that he wore on his head.”

“I’ve seen him at least three times,” Bowers said. Didn’t ever get a good sense of his platform.

Surprising discoveries

Voters who get within touching distance see things that other people don’t. An unexpected bulk under that suit. Clunky thick-soled shoes. Wrinkles. And the irregular edges of an actual personality — revealed by raw fatigue or a rare sense that no one is watching.

“He’s just a fun guy. After he talks to you a little bit, he’ll be a little silly,” said Steve Cunningham, a state legislator and county GOP chairman, about Perry. He said Perry cracked him up with exaggerated faces, full-body impressions and a funny voice, something like Shaggy from “Scooby-Doo.”

“If there was just a neighbor that you’d like to go fishing with, or like to go out for pizza and beer with, it’s him,” Cunningham said. His second-favorite candidate was Santorum. “Would I enjoy being at a Christmas party and talking to him? Absolutely,” Cunningham said. But a fishing trip, not so much.

Di Lothrop, a local GOP official in Nashua, said she felt Gingrich was not very personable when she met him: He talked to her like a boss, not a friend. One thing she did like, though: Gingrich sought to make sure his wife, Callista, was included in conversations.

Included, like how?

“He’d look over at her, and he’d say, ‘My wife and I feel . . .’ ” and then make his point, Lothrop said. “No one asking for her opinion. But he knew that she was with him.”

In Dover, Bill Higgins also likes to meet the candidates who pass through. He also likes to bring a goat. This had not been a problem before. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) petted his previous goat, the late Binx, in the last primary season. This time, the new goat, Izak, nuzzled Gingrich without incident.

Then it met Huntsman.

“He just turned around and nip-nip-nip,” Higgins, 59, recalled Thursday, making a noise like the sound of a goat biting a presidential candidate on the knee.

“Just sampling him,” said Higgins’s roommate, Judy Hammond.

Huntsman was not hurt, and he reacted with good cheer. Now, there’s a Huntsman sign outside Higgins’ house (although Hammond is still undecided). Only in New Hampshire, Higgins said.

“Where else can [candidates] go and meet people one-on-one?” he said, as Izak munched on hay and cardboard boxes in a room off Higgins’s kitchen. “Especially people like us.”

All of this can create an expectation of hyper-intimacy that is probably unrealistic — given that these candidates are running for president of a vast country. At a Gingrich rally on Wednesday in Concord, for example, the first question came from a man with a complaint about having a mole removed (he felt the Veterans Administration should offer the procedure closer to his home).

But, in New Hampshire, many voters can’t imagine another way.

“How do people” vote in other states, asked Ludlow Flower, a Republican from Orford. This year, he argued national security with Paul and had dinner with Santorum, before settling on Romney because of his commanding presence in person. “I’m not sure what they base their ultimate vote on. I mean, maybe they get a mailer or something like that. Or I don’t know, a phone-bank call.”

The ‘Chris Dodd Effect’

But this year, even voters who’ve met all the candidates still aren’t sure whom they will choose. The best example might be the Bridges, who have been going to see candidates since Ross Perot’s run in 1992.

They are conservatives, interested in a return to strict constitutional government. But they also put a lot of stock in what somebody looks like in person. This can make them swayed by a good retail pol: In their family, this is called the “Chris Dodd Effect.”

That’s because, last primary season, the Democratic senator and short-lived candidate managed to win over Andy in person, despite their huge ideological differences. That lasted 10 minutes, all the way until they stopped at McDonald’s on the way home.

“I had to verbally smack him,” Betsie said.

This year, both are leaning toward Paul, liking his calls for smaller government and reduced spending. But they thought Santorum was charming in person. They loved Perry’s handshake. And the first two times they saw Gingrich, they were impressed, despite the fact that they think many of his solutions would only make government bigger.

On Wednesday, they sat in the audience as Gingrich held forth at St. Anselm College. “You have to have tort reform” to lower health-care costs, Gingrich said. “Yeah!” Betsie said under her breath. Federal bureaucrats are “ignorant and above reality,” he said. Betsie laughed.

When the event ended, she looked at her husband. Newt had convinced her, in spite of herself.

“Smack me,” she told him.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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