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.