New Hampshire campaign trail has its must-stops

On Saturday, Jon Huntsman Jr., a man who hopes to be America’s next president, went to MaryAnn’s Diner in Derry and ordered blueberry pancakes and bacon. That might not seem so unusual — except that when Republican Rudy Giuliani was on a similar mission four years ago, he also went to MaryAnn’s, for an order of egg whites and sliced tomatoes (he was avoiding starch). And when Democrat Howard Dean sought a nomination eight years ago, he went there for a strawberry milkshake.

As Republican candidates gear up for primaries early next year, they are “dropping in” to woo voters at carefully chosen venues in towns, such as Derry, across New Hampshire. This small state traditionally holds one of the first primaries, this time tentatively scheduled for Feb. 14. And although the candidates change with each election cycle, the state’s well-trodden campaign trail for Democrats and Republicans follows a largely unchanging hit list of diners, farms, factories, general stores and even a gun shop.

“There is a sense of tying the campaign to tradition and tying it to the past,” says Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. Rather than picking trendy new venues, candidates tend to visit businesses that have survived for several years and resonate with voters of all ages.

MaryAnn’s, which has been serving calorific breakfasts at its chrome counter since 1989, is a much-loved venue for both parties. William Andreoli, who owns MaryAnn’s and named the diner after his wife, gets a buzz from seeing that his business has, without much effort on his part, become a mini-stage for future presidents.

“I enjoy it. I see all these people on the news, and I have my opinion of them,” Andreoli says. “I want to see if that opinion holds up.”

His favorite visitor was Bill Clinton, the former president who visited on wife Hillary’s behalf when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Clinton lived up to his reputation for being highly charismatic, complimenting Andreoli on everything from the wooden jukebox to the waitresses’ retro uniforms.

MaryAnn’s is also an efficient pit stop — a busy candidate can meet and greet a clientele that cuts across social classes. “They can talk to every type of person here. We get the blue-collars and the lawyers,” Andreoli says. Similar eateries on the trail include Chez Vachon and the Puritan Back Room, both in Manchester, the state’s biggest city.

Other favored destinations provide access to specific voter blocs. This year’s Republican candidates, like their predecessors, are visiting some conservative venues. On Route 3 in Hooksett, about 20 miles north of MaryAnn’s, is GOP trail fixture: Riley’s Gun Shop.

“There are a lot of single-issue voters among the gun people,” says Ralph Demicco, who owns the store, which opened in 1953. “If they are given a choice of conservative candidates, they will pick the one who is interested in our civil rights on firearms.”

Overall, New Hampshire’s 1.3 million residents seem to favor small government and individual rights. The state, whose license plates bear the motto “Live Free or Die,” does not tax wages or sales. It has the highest median household income in the country — $66,654, according to the Census Bureau.

Sen. John McCain stops at Robie's General Store in Hookset, N.H., in October 2007. (Jim Cole/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

After going to Riley’s, a Republican candidate will usually drive a few minutes north to Robie’s Country Store. The red timber building opened in 1822 and is popular with older Hooksett conservatives, who can buy local newspapers and homemade bread pudding there. John McCain, who went on to win the Republican nomination in 2008, visited with his wife during his primary campaign and impressed customers with his lack of an entourage. Republicans Huntsman, former governor of Utah, and Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, have stopped by this year.

Such visits are meant to present a candidate as “a real person” who likes to eat pancakes, peruse four-foot rifles and take impromptu questions from voters. In reality, some drop-ins are merely a flurry of shaking hands and posing for photographs.

When visiting a niche venue, politicians are so well prepared that it can be hard to get insight into their characters. Demicco says that most of the visitors to his gun shop, from Ronald Reagan in 1979 to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) in 2007, have followed similar routines, telling anecdotes about hunting trips and vowing to back gun ownership. “When they make an appointment to come here . . . they know what they are getting [into],” he says. “It would be unwise to come to the lion’s den unprepared.”

A better place for voters to meet and quiz a presidential hopeful might be amid the upper layer of New Hampshire campaigning — the private house party.

This year, Ovide Lamontagne, an influential lawyer in Manchester, has become the host of choice for Republican candidates. Lamontagne has held parties for seven candidates so far — the most recent involved drinks on his lawn for Mitt Romney on Aug. 12. He is finalizing dates with Romney’s main primary rivals, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Gov. Rick Perry (Tex.).

“People feel more comfortable [at someone’s home]. The candidates will stay longer than the appointed time. They will stay and meet everyone,” Lamontagne says. At a house party, politicians knows that every guest is registered to vote in the primaries and crucial to their bid. At a diner stop, they might get stuck talking to tourists.

Lamontagne says his popularity stems partly from the guest list of local Republicans that’s at his fingertips. He ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate last year and is mulling a run for governor next year, so he “has those contacts.”

He says he also knows from experience what a candidate wants from such parties. He asks guests to RSVP with contact information so that campaigns can follow up on offers of donations. On the night of the event, he creates an informal atmosphere in which the candidate can focus on being personable. At Romney’s party, Lamontagne playfully presented him with a toy ax, symbolizing the need for tax cuts. Guests drank iced tea from cans and wine from plastic cups.

Romney is a natural choice when New Hampshire votes in six months. The former governor of neighboring Massachusetts has a vacation house in the state and is at home in its low-key but affluent conservative scene, with its unofficial uniform of chinos and navy-blue blazers.

It is yet to be seen how the gregarious Perry, with his penchant for cowboy boots, will go down here. Perry started making forays into the state in the past two weeks. His two short visits have included a stop at Bedford Village Inn southwest of Manchester, another familiar venue on the trail, where politicians eat breakfast and sign novelty wooden eggs. Pamela Tucker, the state’s deputy House speaker, hosted a party for him at her house in Greenland.

New Hampshire’s trickle of visiting politicians will turn into a flood as the race heats up this fall. In the age of Twitter feeds and television commercials, it may seem odd that campaigns agonize over crafting these folksy trips. However, because of the state’s small population and key position in the contest, residents expect that a candidate will meet them in person and request their vote.

“New Hampshire politics is person-to-person politics,” says Wally Stickney, a 76-year-old retired engineer who waited outside MaryAnn’s holding a Huntsman banner when the former governor stopped by. “They say ’round here that if a candidate hasn’t shaken hands with you a dozen times, he doesn’t have a chance.”