Candidates Find It Hard to Get Grip on State in Political Flux

One final look at what the staff at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, N.H. thinks of Campaign 2008.Video: Ed O'Keefe/
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

CONCORD, N.H. -- New Hampshire is a tough place to get a handle on -- endearingly so, say its boosters. It can claim such New England icons as Robert Frost and Yankee magazine, yet it also boasts the region's premier NASCAR track, and one of its biggest draws is the raucous Motorcycle Week in June, when the drone of bikes takes over the town of Laconia.

It is known for its mountains -- Mount Washington is the highest peak in the Northeast -- yet most people live clustered on flat terrain, in the Merrimack River Valley and along the state's short Atlantic coastline. It is in the heart of one of the most liberal sections of the country, yet just a few years ago, its governor and four representatives in Congress were Republicans. It still has plenty of old Yankee stock, but the Lakes Region is now home to a thriving community of Mormon vacationers, including Mitt Romney's family.

Its denizens value privacy, yet they assume high levels of public responsibility, filling out a state House of 400 members -- the third-largest representative body in the English-speaking world -- and, in even the smallest hamlets, turning out for interminable annual town meetings.

It is a state with relatively few poor or very rich, yet there are sharp differences from town to town, with struggling mill villages set just down the road from comfortable bedroom communities. It sits in the shadow of metropolitan Boston, where many of its residents commute for work, yet it is mostly a connection of small towns. Only Manchester barely cracks the 100,000 threshold.

Such idiosyncrasies make it tricky going for presidential candidates, particularly now that the state finds itself in a period of major political flux. Until recently, it was dominated by a moderate brand of Republicanism -- anti-tax, pro-environment, libertarian on social issues -- that also allowed for the occasional centrist Democrat such as Bill Clinton, who carried the state twice.

But recent years have witnessed a shift. The 2006 Republican wipeout was merciless in New Hampshire, where Democrats seized both seats in the U.S. House and both chambers of the state legislature. Part of the rout could be attributed to the unpopularity of President Bush and of the war in Iraq. But many believe there is a broader transformation underway, that New Hampshire may at last be moving toward the kind of Democratic hegemony seen elsewhere in New England.

The shift was caused in part by an influx of residents. Unlike in the rest of New England, New Hampshire's population is quite dynamic, ranking just behind the Sun Belt states with its high rate of residents born outside the state. For years, many of these transplants were Massachusetts residents fleeing taxes and liberalism for a state that remains only one of two in the country with neither a sales tax nor an income tax. But these days there are also plenty of Democratic-leaning families coming from Massachusetts, seeking affordable houses rather than conservative politics. And large numbers have also been attracted to the quality of life and the economy, which has become the fastest-growing in New England, in part because of a boomlet in technology jobs.

The import of the state's transformation has been plain to see in the race leading to Tuesday's primary. Romney, a familiar face here, led in the Republican polls for months, but his support was shallow -- in a state with a demoralized Republican Party seeking to redefine what it stands for, he offered the old model, with a strong dose of social conservatism that does not play so well in the "Live Free or Die" state. Lacking better alternatives, many Republicans are now turning again to John McCain, who won big here against George W. Bush in 2000.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Rodham Clinton was banking on a reservoir of support going back to her husband's comeback in the 1992 primary and the Clintons' maintenance of their relationship with the state throughout the 1990s. But many of the voters who were around then have been replaced on the rolls by younger, more upscale and independent-minded voters, just the type that Barack Obama has been winning over with his message of generational change.

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