It's a notably low-key approach, designed for people who have a notably low opinion of politics and politicians. Today, eight high-tech CEOs from around the country will visit Daniel Webster College here for a discussion of the future of their industry--a session that will be carried via the Internet to schools throughout New Hampshire.
The panel, which will be repeated at four other New Hampshire campuses over a three-day period, is part of a subtle campaign by backers of George W. Bush to infiltrate what has become perhaps the most significant, and certainly the most elusive, constituency in the Granite State--the people who make up the burgeoning high-tech industry. The visiting chief executives, while discussing job prospects and breakthrough products, are supposed to let their audiences know they are members of Bush's national information technology advisory council--an implicit message that the Texas governor is attuned to the growth engine of the state's economy.
For three straight years, the American Electronics Association has reported that New Hampshire leads all states in the percentage of the work force in high-tech jobs. According to Dennis C. Delay, senior economist for Public Service of New Hampshire, more than 8 percent of New Hampshire's workers are in high-tech jobs, almost twice the national average. About 3,500 companies employ more than 66,000 people, at an average annual wage close to $50,000.
It's also the fastest-growing part of the New Hampshire economy and a principal reason that the state has climbed out of the severe recession candidates found here in 1992 into the heady times of today. When he spoke at the business outlook conference of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce last week, Delay led the audience in reciting what he said should be the state's mantra: "This is as good as it gets!"
In 1992, defense cutbacks, the construction industry's collapse and bank failures created a sense of despair that damaged President George Bush in his contest with Patrick J. Buchanan and that impelled the Clinton campaign to adopt the slogan "It's the economy, stupid." Thanks in part to thousands of new high-tech jobs, the state's unemployment rate has fallen from 7.5 percent in 1992 to 2.5 percent today. Over the same period, per capita income has grown 4 percent faster in New Hampshire than in the nation as a whole.
Getting inside that high-tech world to mine for votes is a challenge to the ingenuity of the campaigns. Nick Baldick, who is running Vice President Gore's effort here, said, "They are difficult to reach. Many are new to the state. The companies are small. They don't walk around with signs saying, 'Talk high-tech issues with me.' "
Gore, who prides himself on being technology-savvy, has been preaching the gospel of "the new economy" at places like the Nashua Chamber's annual dinner for years. Doug Hattaway, his New Hampshire press secretary, said that Gore has had town meetings in Salem, Derry, Nashua and Portsmouth--all centers of high technology--and that his daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, will meet with young Internet workers this weekend. His opponent, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, held one of his earliest organizing meetings at the Internet Commerce Services Corp. here; the company's head, Manny Barreto, has organized volunteer teams to make phone calls to others in his world. Barreto said Bradley's promise "to take on the big challenges and get things done" resonates with others like himself who had never wanted to be involved in a political campaign. Bradley and Gore have expanded their own Web sites and used them to build organizations of Internet supporters.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) repeatedly has stressed the need for a permanent moratorium on Internet taxes and has made appearances before such groups as the Software Association of New Hampshire. Michael Dennehy, McCain's New Hampshire manager, said, "We continue to reach out to people in that world. They're not a voting bloc, but they are important."
Bush probably has made the most targeted effort to connect to high-tech workers, aided by Jesse Devitte, head of Vertical Market Ventures, a Concord company that provides seed money for start-up software and Internet ventures. Devitte was New Hampshire chairman of Elizabeth Dole's campaign and moved over to Bush when she quit the race. "These companies are stacked with independent voters," he said. "They're not conservative or liberal, and Elizabeth was very appealing to them. We've basically taken the program we had set up for her and are executing it now for Bush."
In December, Bush joined James Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape Communications Corp., at an event that drew 400 high-tech people. He is visiting several more high-tech companies before the Feb. 1 primary. But in the meantime, there is the CEOs' tour--another Devitte idea for "how to reach out with a bona fide educational event."
The sales resistance to all the candidates from these fast-moving, entrepreneurial people is intimidatingly high.
At the Tech Expo in Manchester last week, Dan O'Donnell, the 25-year-old creator of a Web site called Lowdown.com, was canvassing for advertisers for his year-old venture. Asked about the presidential hopefuls, he said, "American politics is too traditional. I'm tired of all the lying. The one guy I really like is [Minnesota Gov. Jesse] Ventura. For people my age, he's the only one that's real."
Neil C. Gould, a 62-year-old Merrimack business consultant at the same show, said he was attracted to the radical tax reforms of Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes and to McCain's campaign finance reform ideas. "But there's no point voting for a candidate with a single idea which you know isn't going to happen," he said. "Bush is a practical fellow, who knows you have to be in the middle to be elected."
Others in the industry find Bush less compelling. "I don't hear anything from Bush," said Ben Low of Concord, who places Yellow Pages ads for Internet companies. "It's all airy stuff." Low is leaning toward McCain, because "he doesn't split hairs and when he screws something up, he doesn't cast it off on someone else."
Susan O'Neil, president of a new company that offers marketing and publicity advice to creators of Web sites, is McCain co-chairman in Peterborough. She picked him because "he speaks very intelligently on the issues of violence in the schools" and in spite of skepticism about his call for a permanent moratorium on Internet taxes--the very issue McCain hopes will attract voters like her. "You have to be fair," she said. "If commerce is going to move to the Internet, what's going to happen to the Main Street merchants who have to pay taxes on their business?"
Hers is far from the only example of the way in which high-tech people disdain conventional politics. Most of those interviewed were scornful of the notion that Washington had a hand in creating the great economy. "It's growing despite the people in Washington, not because of them," Low said. Said Gould: "The CEOs I work with say things are going so well, even the government can't screw it up."
At a more senior level, among members of the board of directors of the New Hampshire High-Tech Council, it is clear that most believe Republicans have a better appreciation of the dynamics of the private sector than Democrats do. Because most of their companies depend on export markets, they rule out candidates who criticize the World Trade Organization or urge that China be denied membership in that body because of its human rights record.
Interviewed at a board meeting in Manchester, most expressed skepticism about Gore and Bradley. An exception was Bob Thomason of the Chaucer Group in Canterbury, N.H., a Bradley backer, who said that more than any economic issue, "what's important to me is that this continue to be a place where you want to live and work. And that means keeping the environment right, the health system right, education right."
Perhaps the best summary of the discussion came from Transpoint Language's Mike Quinlan, who said, "The bottom line is that the United States has an incredibly vital system of creating new industries and new companies. It has to do with a lot of things--our secondary education, our venture capital, the Nasdaq market, the tax treatment of options. Most of the issues we talk about are just simple fears that someone will do something to mess things up--or not expand it. The best way to mess it up is through loading on taxes, and the best way not to expand it is not to do education well."
The consensus across the ideological spectrum was that education--especially beyond high school--is the key to having the kind of work force the expanding high-tech economy demands. "Adult education is vital," said Charley Monaghan, another board member. "Workers are going to have to be retrained every decade."
That is the mission of the New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, a two-year college, two-thirds of whose graduates go directly into the work force. Its president, William G. Simonton, said the best thing government could do for this growing industry is to expand the scholarships available to promising high school students.
Hal Koch, CEO of Exacom in Concord and a member of the Technical Institute's board of trustees, expressed his industry's general disdain for Washington. "The less government does in the guise of helping business," he said, "the more it helps business." A political independent, he said he has concluded that the real power lies in Congress "and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference who is in the White House."
Turned off by all the money Bush has raised, Koch said he finds Bradley "appealing" but will probably go over to the Republican side to vote for McCain--"a real person who can probably work the system and is not in the pocket of the special interests."