N.H. Democrats Ponder Tone, Style

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- As a snow squall whirled outside, Sen. Barack Obama, in a black suit, told more than 500 people gathered at a downtown hotel here last week that he is running for president to "tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda are over" and, in his rousing baritone, urged the crowd to "stand up." An hour later, at a theater a few blocks away, John Edwards, clad in jeans and a windbreaker, declared in a hoarse shout that the country is being done in by "corporate power and greed," then exhorted his audience to "rise up."

Bruce Berk heard them both. The high school teacher from Hooksett had rushed from hotel to theater in his effort to see enough of the candidates to get a deeper feel for them and their approaches to governing. Afterward, he said he liked that Edwards's anti-Washington pitch was more policy-specific than Obama's, but also worried that Edwards's aggressive call to arms would make it hard for him to get anything done in office.

"It's a great message, but in the end you have to get those powerbrokers to compromise," Berk said. "You're not going to have a revolution in the street."

As the Democratic presidential candidates make their final appeals here, voters trudge through the snow from event to event knowing in advance what they will be hearing, since the platforms are so broadly similar: Get our troops out of Iraq, repair the country's reputation abroad, overhaul health care, close the gap between rich and poor. Like veteran concertgoers, what the voters are listening for is not so much the substance of the candidates' program but the tone and style with which they are presenting it. Many voters are making their decisions based on highly personal judgments about the character, background, governing philosophy and capability of the contenders.

It is a decision-making process about predicting results. Who will most likely beat the Republican nominee next fall in a year when things seem to be leaning the Democrats' way? Who can unite a divided country? Who can implement the agreed-upon platform?

The Democratic voters' approach presents a stark contrast with their Republican counterparts, who disagree on such major issues as immigration, abortion and trade. In the Democratic campaign, policy clashes have arisen over relatively fine points: whether a health-care plan should include an individual insurance mandate, whether Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) was right to vote for a nonbinding resolution declaring an Iranian military unit a terrorist organization.

It also differs from past Democratic primaries, when there were more defined differences along the liberal-moderate spectrum and among the party's various constituencies. In 2004, many liberal Democrats flocked to former Vermont governor Howard Dean because of his opposition to the war in Iraq and full-throated attacks on President Bush. In 2000, Al Gore, as the establishment candidate, had the backing of unions and party regulars, while former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.) drew support among liberal professionals and left-leaning independents. In 1992, Bill Clinton aimed to win back Reagan Democrats with his moderate brand of liberalism.

This time around, it is more difficult to categorize loyalties. Some on the party's left wing, for instance, prefer the former North Carolina senator for his anti-corporate tone, some like the Illinois senator for his early opposition to the war in Iraq, some admire Clinton for her battles with right-wing Republicans. "It's very nuanced, because they are all very good candidates," said Celia Gibbs, a mental health administrator in Plymouth.

While most say they will support the eventual nominee, those who have made up their minds are adamant in defending the rightness of their choices.

Nancy Greaney, a retired teacher from Merrimack, said she is with Obama because she is convinced that he is the only one who can unite the country. "He's the type of person we need right now. He's someone for our time," she said. She dismisses concerns about his lack of executive experience. "Judgment and character outweigh any concerns about experience. He's experienced, but it may just not be the experience that some people want," she said. "You can already see that he's surrounded himself with smart people who will challenge him."

Laura Rollison, an English professor at Plymouth State College, is backing Clinton because she thinks she is the only one ready to take charge at a perilous time. "She already has that experience. It's not a novelty for her," she said. For those who question how much Clinton did as first lady, Rollison has a quick retort: Behind every successful man is a successful woman, and it is about time that at least one woman got to claim full credit for that. "She had a hand in everything," Rollison said. "They've always been a team, and that's not going to change."

For the many who are still undecided, the evaluation tends to break around certain themes. Some voters leaning to Clinton say they are still wrestling with their reluctance to perpetuate the dominance of two political families in the White House. Gibbs, in Plymouth, has tried to rationalize away that concern by telling herself to judge each candidate on his or her merits, and deciding that Clinton's plans are "better formulated."

"She knows her stuff; she really does," Gibbs said. "This Bush-Clinton, Bush-Clinton bothers me; it's like an aristocracy. But you have to go with the person. She's been through it before, and she's learned from her mistakes."

Many of those attracted to Obama's biography and optimistic rhetoric are trying to allay their doubts about whether he is ready to lead the country. Gene Kelly, a Manchester engineer, went by himself last week to see Obama for a second time to help resolve those doubts, particularly about whether Obama would be able to stand up to Republican attacks while in office. After the speech, he was still unsure. "He says he'd do all these things that are great -- but kind of impossible," Kelly said.

The Clinton campaign here is counting on many Democrats' having similar reservations about Obama. The New Hampshire voter, campaign officials say, is inherently practical and takes his or her responsibility scrutinizing candidates very seriously. For that reason, they say, voters here place more stock in qualifications and 10-point policy plans than voters elsewhere might.

The Obama campaign counts on a different strain prevailing -- that Democrats, after first simply wanting to win back the White House, are thinking more about what kind of president they want as the Jan. 8 primary gets closer.

One of those who has made that switch is Mil Duncan, a sociologist in Newmarket. She was leaning to Clinton months ago because she liked her grasp of rural issues but has since moved to Obama out of a hope to leave behind "old politics." Duncan's transition was sealed by seeing him at a house party, where she was impressed by his "ability to seem totally natural, his clarity and honesty, how he responds and how he listens."

Her new conviction, though, did not keep her and her husband from having a dozen local Democrats at their house recently to discuss the issues over wine and hot cider and let adherents of each candidate make their case. The arguments were "passionate," she said, but within bounds. "People feel they have good choices," she said, "unlike in past elections, where they had to hold their nose."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company