Palin's New Hampshire problem

By Chris Cillizza
Thursday, July 22, 2010; 2:47 PM

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's decision to endorse former New Hampshire attorney general Kelly Ayotte in a contested Senate primary earlier this week immediately set off speculation about what it all meant for the 2008 vice presidential nominee's 2012 prospects.

"Kelly is the strongest commonsense conservative who can win in the fall," wrote Palin on her Facebook page (natch!). "I knew I liked her when I met her earlier this year, and I know this Granite Grizzly will represent New Hampshire with distinction in Washington."

Ayotte has touted the endorsement broadly; her Web site features twin pictures of herself and Palin with the words "Help Sarah Palin fight to elect a true conservative to the Senate."

It was widely presumed that Palin's endorsement would further distance Ayotte from the crowded Republican field in advance of the Sept. 14 primary. After all, not only is Palin regarded as the most prominent conservative figure in the country, but she is also presumed to understand the New Hampshire voter because of her roots in another cold-weather state with a relatively small population.

Palin herself played up the New Hampshire-Alaska comparison on the stump in 2008; "I know that we can count on the good people of New Hampshire because you're a lot like the people of Alaska," she said. "We all love good moose hunting, I know that."

But the reaction in some corners of New Hampshire to Palin's endorsement of Ayotte has been less than effusive.

Take the Manchester Union-Leader, the beacon of conservatism in the state, which bashed Palin in a front-page editorial by publisher Joseph W. McQuaid.

Wrote McQuaid:

"Former Gov. Palin isn't making these endorsements because, as she claims, she has spent time in New Hampshire and thus knows that the people here are a lot like Alaskans. She spent a few hours here on one day during the 2008 Presidential election. That's still more time than she spent getting to know Ayotte, but it takes quite a bit longer to know New Hampshire."

While McQuaid was the loudest voice to point out that Palin has spent almost no time in the state that will host the first 2012 presidential primary, he was far from the only person to make the point.

In fact, way back in April, Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire party chairman, wrote a piece arguing that while Palin "has a large and receptive audience in New Hampshire eager to see her," the fact that she hasn't actively courted the state's voters "is starting to be a mystery."

In conversations with a handful of top-level Republican strategists in New Hampshire, it became clear that Palin has three basic problems she must solve between now and 2012 if she wants to make run at victory in the Granite State.

* Time spent: New Hampshire voters expect -- nay, demand -- to meet (and then meet again and again) the candidates running for president. Palin simply has spent almost no time in the state -- either meeting and greeting activists or recruiting the top-tier political operatives that could begin putting the pieces in place for a run. "It's honestly difficult to say for sure how well Sarah Palin would connect with the voters of New Hampshire given that she has only spent a few hours of one day here," said Mike Dennehy who led Sen. John McCain's (Ariz.) Granite State campaigns. Cullen contended that Palin has "exactly two personal relationships" with New Hampshire voters: Jason Recher and Steve Duprey. Recher, a former advance man for McCain's campaign, now oversees Palin's political operation, while Duprey is a former state party chairman and McCain loyalist.

* Ideological Misfit: Palin's brand of in-your-face social conservatism might not be the best fit for the flinty fiscal conservatives who tend to carry the most influence in the state's presidential primary. "Presidential candidates who run from the right to the right usually don't fare well here," said one senior New Hampshire strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. Indeed, a look at past competitive New Hampshire primary winners -- McCain in 2008 and 2000 being the prime examples -- suggests that Palin's brand of conservatism might not be as natural a fit in the state as some have expected.

* Independents: New Hampshire has an open primary system, meaning that independents can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary for president. McCain relied heavily on independent voters to surge to a stunning upset of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, and non-affiliated voters also fueled his comeback in the state in 2008. With Obama almost certain not to be challenged for his party's nomination in 2012, independents are likely to play a very influential role in determining the Republican nominee. Palin has struggled mightily to court independent voters since the 2008 campaign; a recent Quinnipiac University national poll showed just 33 percent of independents viewed her favorably, while 50 percent saw her in an unfavorable light.

While those three factors make Palin's potential presidential path perilous -- that's a lot of "p's"! -- in New Hampshire, there is still plenty of reason to believe that Palin's celebrity within the party would allow her to overcome or at least mitigate some of the aforementioned problems if she did ultimately decide to run for president.

And even if Palin muddled through New Hampshire, it's entirely possible that her strengths in Iowa and South Carolina -- where social conservatives carry far more voting influence -- would insulate her from a less-than-stellar performance in the Granite State.

Will Palin even run? That's a question that no one can answer with any degree of authority -- maybe not even Palin herself. If she does, however, New Hampshire would seem to present the biggest hurdle to her chances at the nomination.

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