First in an occasional series of ground-level views on the presidential campaign
The drive to Terry Pfaff's place is not so bad. Take Exit 10 off Highway 93, up Hackett Hill Road, past the Baptist church and you're there: a 9 1/2-acre spread where Pfaff grows pumpkins and squash and corn and green beans and tomatoes and where he has 11 apple trees, four dogs, three kids, two tractors and one horseshoe pit.
Lamar Alexander has been there. Had watermelon and fresh strawberries in the living room. That was in 1996, the last time Alexander ran for president. Not that he ever stopped running. Eight weeks ago, Alexander was in New Hampshire again--that's 26 days in the Granite State since Bill Clinton was reelected! He invited Pfaff down to his Manchester hotel for breakfast. Pfaff was with ol' Plaid Shirt the first time around . . . But this time?
The conversation went something like this:
"Well, what do I have to do to get you on our team again?"
"Look, Lamar, I know who you are. I just need a little more time to sort things out. I haven't gotten position papers back from Bush yet."
"Well, we're going to keep after you. We're going to bug you."
Aside from the scramble for cash, this is where the action is right now in Campaign 2000, nailing down the Terry Pfaffs of the world, those influential party activists who are being snapped up like Ricky Martin CDs. If you are a serious candidate for the presidency you must be serious about this business--especially in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which will propel some contenders on to greater glory and expose others as quacks.
"I don't think it ever stops," says Tom Rath, a veteran of New Hampshire politics and a top Alexander adviser. "In the middle of this primary season, there will be people trying to pick up people for the next time around."
In New Hampshire, there is a finite pool of Republicans whose names on a steering committee mean something, who can round up 50 neighbors for coffee on short notice, who have enough juice to affect the outcome of a primary that won't take place until winter and attracted a little over 200,000 voters in 1996.
Every candidate wants his share of those Republicans, and to tell you the truth, a great many of them are already locked up. But Terry Pfaff is not. Pfaff is a lieutenant in the Manchester Fire Department. The rest of his resume includes four terms as a state representative and current vice chairmanship of the Merrimack County Republicans. And he's only 39.
Last year, Pfaff (the first f is silent, rhymes with cough) lost a close state senate race. Big deal then. No big deal now. His quadrennial moment in national politics has arrived.
A lobbyist friend phoned recently and said that Rep. John Kasich wanted to huddle with him. It was a spur-of-the-moment request and Pfaff was working, but he told his pal, sure, have him come down to Station 10 and we'll host a chicken lunch for him. Kasich loved it. He put on a fire hat. He sat in a fire truck. He told some stories.
"But he's not really viable," says Pfaff, and so Pfaff won't be signing up with the chairman of the House Budget Committee. Now that sounds cold, but Pfaff is blunt about his presidential politics. "I'm gonna wait it out," he says. "You don't know who's going to pop up. And you don't know who's going to fall on his face."
Sooner or later, if you're Terry Pfaff you meet 'em all. They call. They write. They send you videotapes. Dan Quayle and Gary Bauer? Met them, but they're too far right. Liddy Dole? Met her several times, but she seems mostly interested in courting women. Brushed him off to get to his wife, Cindy. John McCain? Spent 40 minutes with him one night in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in downtown Manchester. Later, Pfaff was a guest at McCain's table for the state GOP's big dinner in May. The other courting camps noticed that. Pfaff likes the fact that McCain is a maverick in the Senate, but he can't really see him as president. So it's doubtful Pfaff will be joining McCain's squad.
So that brings us to George W. Bush, a Texas governor who already has a loaded bandwagon. But hey, there's still room. Bush wrote the Pfaffs a "Dear Terry and Cindy" letter. It was dated May 18, 1999, 27 days before his front-running juggernaut hit New Hampshire for the first time. "I hope in the coming days I earn your support. I need energetic and dedicated individuals like you involved in my campaign."
Well, one out of two Pfaffs ain't bad. Cindy, a nurse for 21 years, is now the Hooksett town chairman for Bush.
"I was going to go with Lamar again," she explains, "but when I heard he had the same canned speech that he gave in this living room three years ago, I said 'No, I don't think he has what it takes.' "
By canned speech she means those well-traveled Lamar anecdotes--like the one about the pocket knife he used to carry to school. Undecided hubby Pfaff tries to bail out Alexander. "Everybody likes Lamar. Lamar is a real likable guy." It's just that the media consultants "train you to stay on message."
Pfaff is drawn to Bush, believes he is pragmatic, believes he can unify the party, likes that he's a sportsman, believes he can win the whole enchilada. But Pfaff's not ready to sign on yet. Alexander is decent. He knows Alexander. He trusts Alexander. He is wavering. . . . Alexander, Bush . . . Bush, Alexander.
It's still early.
On this warm evening, Pfaff, so bronzed and crisply casual that he looks like a pro golfer, retrieves a biographical video the McCain people have just sent him. What the heck? Got some time to kill, let's pop it in. Pfaff watches with interest the Vietnam battle scenes, the POW footage. He nods approvingly as the Arizona senator's story unfolds.
"I'll go through the summer," says Pfaff, "see what happens."
CAPTION: "I'm gonna wait it out," says Terry Pfaff, one of the pursued. "You don't know who's going to pop up. And you don't know who's going to fall on his face."
CAPTION: Terry Pfaff tends to his squash in Hooksett, N.H. The Republican Party organizer has not decided whom to support.