Cynthia Milnes, registered Republican, age 44, musician and inveterate volunteer, lives and votes in Bedford, N.H. She is living proof of why the Granite State, despite its lack of size and diversity, deserves to be the first in the nation's primary season. She pays attention, she digs out on a cold night to listen to candidates. Even when she's made up her mind, she goes and checks out other contenders. "I have to be informed," she says. "I have to know everything I possibly can."
I first met Cynthia at a Republican lunch in Nashua for Arizona Sen. John McCain a few months ago, when she was candidate shopping. He indirectly answered her greatest concern. Her son, Brook, is 15, and she doesn't want to see him drafted and sent to some country she's never heard of. McCain's comments about the military's low pay and the service members on food stamps, and his promise to fix things, spoke to her: "I thought he was saying he would make the service more attractive so we wouldn't have to go back to the draft." She also liked McCain because she thought he has integrity, but she didn't really decide on him for another two months. Even so, when George W. Bush came to Bedford two weeks ago, she went to the Town Hall to see him.
Bush's performance did not change her mind. "It was the lack of substance," she said. "He seemed to be riding on the coattails of his parents. It was an older audience, and all he talked about was Mom and Dad. When someone's cell phone rang, he said, 'I bet that's Mom.' "
Cynthia's mother and some of her neighbors find her party's front-runner fetching. But she says firmly, "I don't vote cute."
Last week, she watched Bush participate in his third Republican debate. She was put off by the Texas governor's evocation of Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher-thinker.
"I am a religious person," she said. She is a churchgoer and she plays the organ for several choirs. "But I think he used it for the political game." She was pleased that McCain stuck with Teddy Roosevelt and did not join the altar call.
She took note, of course, of Thursday's episode in Claremont, where McCain and former senator Bill Bradley made a pledge about campaign finance reform: Neither, if nominated, will accept soft money from their parties. The two candidates made a joint appearance at a town meeting privately taped by ABC's "Nightline," and Cynthia stayed up late to watch so she could see the first bipartisanship of the 2000 campaign.
"I felt badly for Bradley," she said. "He could hardly get a word in edgewise."
She also saw her first unnerving glimpse of the McCain temper, which has become one of the issues of the campaign. His answer to the first question--from a right-to-lifer who thought that a soft-money ban would cramp his freedom of speech--was quite combative.
Campaign finance reform is not a really big issue for Cynthia. Still, her views help explain why the two upstarts are doing so well in the polls while the cause, which provides starch for both insurgencies, is not. Although voters like Cynthia don't volunteer an interest in campaign finance reform, even a little conversation turns up the disenchantment with politics as usual that is causing such consternation for Bush and Vice President Gore. "It's all so slimy," Cynthia says.
Claremont may have been a stunt and a photo-op as critics charged, but it was useful to illuminate the Granite State's notorious soft spot for troublemakers--it loves unmaking sure things. And the event showed once again that television is a good place to start campaign reform. CNN, which had planned live coverage of a McCain-Bradley news conference that took place after the "Nightline" taping, only put one question on the air and then cut to another program--a luncheon meeting of a women's investment club. After that, CNN devoted several hours to uninformative coverage of Monica Lewinsky's appearance at a pretrial hearing in the Maryland criminal case of Linda Tripp, the taper.
That sort of programming shows how wise reform groups, such as the Alliance for Better Campaigns, are to train their fire on network television. The obscene amounts of money that flow through campaigns are needed to pay for TV ads. Paul Taylor of the Alliance says that 50 percent of the money raised by candidates goes to their TV ad budgets. He is asking the networks to make available to candidates five minutes of air time every night for a month before the general election. The networks resist, claiming, laughably, that they can't afford such largess. McCain pointed out on "Nightline" that the poor-mouths "ripped off" $70 billion worth of the air that belongs to all of us through the spectrum band.
The skimpy Claremont coverage shows that the rulers of the airwaves think old scandal is more important than new substance in an election.
For voters like Cynthia Milnes, however, the significant is still preferable. Lucky for us that the first primary is in a state where the voters have their priorities screwed on straight.