What does it take to win the New Hampshire presidential primary? Cynical veterans of the campaign process would say money, money and more money. Which would mean that front-runners Al Gore and George W. Bush, who is sweeping up the green stuff faster than a John Deere riding mower, have the Granite State in their back pockets.
Bush was undoubtedly off raising another few million last night, but the vice president and other Campaign 2000 hopefuls--John McCain, Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan, John Kasich and Bob Smith--attended the New Hampshire Presidential Primary Gala at the Ronald Reagan Building.
This was supposed to be a roast of the primary process, which means it was supposed to be funny. The idea was to impress all the New Hampshire folks in the crowd of 400 with charm and humor while raising money for the Library and Archives of New Hampshire's Political Tradition. Charm and humor being in short supply this campaign season, the evening was more like those dating-service videos: a succession of people who think they're really hot but somehow can't score.
"Bush has won the money primary," Alexander said at the VIP reception before the dinner. "I'm going to try to win the New Hampshire primary."
The tiny state of just 1.1 million people has a historic role in presidential elections. It hosts the first official primary, and despite threats from states that think they're important--like, say, California--New Hampshire intends to remain first in the hearts of its countrymen. It will set the date of next year's primary to fall seven days before any other.
So the candidates keep coming back, courting the "real" people. Alexander walked across the state four years ago, shaking hands, listening to problems, discussing issues and came in . . . third. And now he's back, doing that same retail hands-on campaigning that got him so far last time.
"You don't try to get to know New Hampshire," he explained. "You let New Hampshire get to know you. They've seen it all. You can't fool them--easily."
Buchanan, standing a few feet away, glanced over at Alexander. "I don't think he ever left in 1996," said the "defending champion" of the last primary.
Meanwhile, Gore was tucked away in the real VIP reception, where a chosen few had a photo op and a personal, intimate moment with the veep.
"He said, 'Hi, Tom,' " said Tom Horgan, executive director of the Hew Hampshire College and University Council. "I said, 'It's nice to meet you.' He said, 'It's nice to meet you.' And then you get shuffled off."
Then it was time for dinner. Things looked promising: Campaign signs surrounded the stage and political clips from "Saturday Night Live" played on giant video screens. Former presidential contender Eugene McCarthy, always good for a bon mot, was scheduled to speak but broke a rib earlier in the day and had to cancel.
Gore got to throw out the first pitch. His short remarks contained a few smart one-liners, delivered with his characteristic dry humor.
His campaign slogan? "Live Free or Die, Stupid." And how nice, he said, to see politicians talking to average folks: "We finally get to see the New Hampshire political types mixing with the real people of Washington."
Gore was quite prepared, he said, to pander to the fine people of this very fine state. Or not. Whatever they wanted. An ambassadorship, perhaps? "Come on, let's face it," he said. "The New Hampshire primary is more like a job fair."
He received a standing ovation, which seemed generous until the other speakers were up at bat:
McCain tried to tell one joke, and flubbed it.
Kasich told a story about riding a dog sled.
Alexander gave a stump speech. Really.
Favorite son Bob Smith tossed a few darts at his rivals in " 'Twas the Night Before the Primary." He did such a good impression of President Clinton that his poem was interrupted by actual applause.
"Ted Turner's getting sick of this act," said CNN "Crossfire" host and once-and-future candidate Buchanan. He said New Hampshire is a great state and he really, really had fun campaigning there last time.
And Elizabeth Dole insisted she wasn't a thin-skinned perfectionist. "This is a good time to set the record straight," she said, announcing she would have released a statement already, but it had some typos.
The biggest yuks came from a video of Bob Dole on "Saturday Night Live."
Come to think of it, even Dole--one of the great wits of the Senate--stopped being clever when he was the Republican candidate. Guess there's nothing funny about running for president.
Except for George W. Bush, who's laughing all the way to the bank.
CAPTION: Former New Hampshire governor Hugh Gregg, flanked by presidential hopefuls Lamar Alexander, left, and Pat Buchanan at last night's fund-raiser.
CAPTION: Republican presidential hopeful Elizabeth Dole spoke with New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen at last night's fund-raising gala.