The thrill of covering the New Hampshire primary is only slightly marred by the perpetual condition of being lost on a dark, lonely road. The typical road here veers randomly through the woods, as though it follows an old Indian trail and the Indian kept changing his mind. The people of this state haven't discovered the concept of the grid system. There's hardly a right turn anywhere, unless you count the interior of Gary Bauer's brain. All the roads seem to be named Route 101-A. It's possible that I've actually spent most of the last 36 hours in Massachusetts.
Getting lost is part of the New Hampshire primary tradition. This place is a fun house. The primary is truly a treasure of American political life -- a 20th Century invention bequeathed to the 21st. Nothing is entirely real anymore in our political system, but this is close.
Candidates are forced to do "retail" politics not as a stunt but out of a genuine need to win the votes of ordinary folks with ordinary needs and interests. In a few days that will totally change, and the candidates will switch to large rallies and gimmicky appearances staged for TV coverage, and eventually one of these candidates will actually become -- this is the part that's hard to believe -- the president, and he will be able to spend all his time with lawyers, suck-ups and secret agents of the Chinese government.
Last night John McCain held one of his town meetings at a high school in the town of Plaistow. The interior hallways of the school were painted in that institutional green that we all know and despise: a pale, flat, soul-numbing green that has no relation whatsoever to the green found in the vegetable kingdom. The linoleum floor tiles were a random combination of beige, cream and olive. Someone had placed two large plastic trash barrels to catch the leaks from the ceiling.
The trash barrels weren't there through some political calculus. This wasn't part of the "advance" work, meant to highlight deteriorating school buildings. This was just a real school in a real place. To heighten the authenticity, McCain's bus got lost on the way.
Over in Amherst, George W. Bush had his own gymnasium show. The man is a formidable campaigner. He knows how to handle a cute baby, specifically an elf named Mollie: Let her play with the fuzzy covers on the boom microphones. "Producer man, you going to put it on CNN?" Bush says to a camera crew. Yes, indeed: Bush and the baby will make the cut of the campaign footage and get beamed around the world. Bush hands the baby back to the Dad, says, "Great lookin' baby you got there," and makes the kind of eye contact that wins campaigns. If the contest comes down to eye contact, Bush is unstoppable. (Though, for the record, the baby's dad said he's probably voting for McCain. The baby refused to comment.)
In his stump speech Bush sounds like a football coach. Not a little bit like a coach: Exactly like a coach. It's halftime and he's trying to get his team revved up. He's unsatisfied, but optimistic. This is the speech you give a team that's actually winning the game, but by too few points. We gotta try harder. We need to remember the little people, the players on the bench. We gotta remember the other team is still dangerous. As he speaks Bush grips the rostrum as though he wants to pick it up and throw it across the room. Suddenly he'll make a karate chop that could do serious damage if it made contact with living flesh. A lack of vigor isn't his problem.
At one point he says, "Listen, I got a battle on my hands in this state . . . I'm running against a good man, named McCain, it's a good contest." This is guy talk, no-nonsense, tough; but it's also Bush's way of saying that Steve Forbes doesn't get to play in his league, that Forbes and Bauer and Alan Keyes are Arena Football material.
Bush has stolen as many moves from the Democrats as Clinton stole from the Republicans. "I will work tirelessly to close the gap of hope," he says, in a line that could have come from the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He begins his speech with a pitch for loving your kids. "You must rededicate yourself to your children. You must tell them you love them, a lot." He talks about tax cuts and the need for a strong military and zero obstacles to free trade, and he doesn't mention the current occupant of the White House, much less anything to do with impeachment or Oval Office shenanigans.
I asked his communications director, Karen Hughes, why Bush doesn't mention Clinton. "Because he's a past chapter in our history," she said.
(Apparently no one told Clinton, whose final State of the Union Address had the feel of a filibuster.)
The blustery style of Bush is in sharp contrast to Gore, who often seems to have just mastered the workings of the tongue and lips and larynx that allow for human speech. It's like he figured it out last night, and today he's going to try speaking for the first time in public. He looks great (and increasingly resembles Ronald Reagan, oddly enough), and he's become a much better campaigner (poor Bradley -- not exactly peaking in the final days of the race here -- at this point he may be campaigning for president of the Kennedy School of Government). But Gore still has sound problems. He just sounds wrong. He doesn't even chuckle well. The slowness of his delivery comes off as patronizing. What would Gore sound like if he actually WAS being patronizing?
Hour by hour he is morphing into the prohibitive frontrunner. Bradley woke up to a dismal story in USA Today showing him tanking in the polls. Wednesday's dull debate didn't help Bradley; it degenerated into a back-and-forth about who was being negative and who wasn't. No, YOU'RE negative, they kept saying. It was a schoolyard squabble.
Gore made sure to stop at an old mill that's been turned into a high-tech workplace that makes some kind of computer software. The campaign claimed that the participants were random company employees and that their questions weren't screened, but by some miracle they all asked perfectly reasonable, smart, polite questions about education, Russia policy, health care, and what lessons he's learned in office. One person asked about broadband Internet access in rural areas. Gore's seminar on the Information Age lasted so long that it was hard to remember what the original question had been. For the veep, this was heaven.
Rough Draft will have more New Hampshire coverage Monday, unless they call the whole thing off.