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Eugene McCarthy vs. LBJ: The New Hampshire primary showdown that changed everything 50 years ago

Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) campaigns in Manchester, N.H., on March 9, 1968, three days before the nation’s first Democratic primary. (J. Walter Green/AP)
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No one thought he had a chance.

Eugene McCarthy had $450 in his campaign war chest and almost no name recognition when he decided to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968.

What the Minnesota senator did have as the March 12 New Hampshire primary approached was the fervent support of young activists who opposed the Vietnam War.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 college students streamed into the state beginning in early January to canvass for McCarthy, the first Democratic candidate to condemn the war. While many were not old enough to vote — the age was still 21 — the young men were old enough to be drafted at a time when the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam had reached its peak of 500,000.

Following the rallying cry, “Get Clean For Gene,” the young men cut their long hippie hair and shaved their beards. Jackets and ties replaced sweatshirts. The young women included a former “Goldwater girl” (and future first lady and presidential candidate), Hillary Rodham, who had recently quit a campus Young Republicans chapter at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

The students, brimming with energy and idealism, knocked on doors for weeks, reaching 60,000 residents — nearly half the state.

“People in New Hampshire have a reputation, undeserved, for being flinty,” Walter Mears, 83, who covered the primary for the Associated Press, said in an interview. “But they’re reserved. You would have wondered if an influx of young people campaigning for a Democratic rebellion candidate would have received a welcome. But they were clean shaven, well-spoken, and I think they impressed people.”

The Clean for Gene campaign also made great copy — a fact not lost on the McCarthy staff, many of whom had media backgrounds. Campaign manager Blair Clark had been an executive at CBS News. Chief tactician Curtis Gans had been a reporter for UPI. And press secretary Seymour Hersh, a former AP Pentagon reporter described by Time as “an unexcelled master of profanity,” would win a Pulitzer the following year for his coverage of the My Lai Massacre.

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Initially confident of a win, Johnson was not even on the ballot. His staff was running a write-in campaign. But as the McCarthy insurgency began to gather momentum, Johnson operatives ran radio ads to ratchet up Cold War fears.

“The Communists in Vietnam are watching the New Hampshire primaries,” declared one ad. “They are watching to see if we here at home have the same determination as our soldiers.”

New Hampshire Gov. John King warned that a victory for McCarthy would be seen in Hanoi “as a sign that the American people are ready to quit.”

The McCarthy campaign essentially bet on the point spread. They recognized that a loser who generated more votes than expected would be viewed as the winner.

They were right. McCarthy received 42 percent of the vote while Johnson captured 50 percent. The president had eked out a win. But it was viewed as one of the biggest upsets in Democratic Party history.

“People have remarked that this campaign has brought young people back into the system,” McCarthy told his jubilant supporters that night. “But it’s the other way around. The young people have brought the country back into the system.”

His candidacy had its genesis in the National Conference of Concerned Democrats. Led by antiwar party activists Allard Lowenstein and Curtis Gans, it was dubbed the “Dump Johnson” movement.

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The quiet senator, a diffident campaigner, was not their first choice to challenge LBJ. They had previously approached Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, neither of whom wanted to divide the party or do battle with Johnson, still a popular incumbent.

McCarthy announced his candidacy in late November by quietly reading a statement in the Senate Caucus Room. In fact, he never said he was running for president — only that he would challenge Johnson in four primaries (Wisconsin, Oregon, California and Nebraska) and possibly two others, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

“Because of his cool and detached way of campaigning, McCarthy was often asked if he really wanted to be president,” campaign manager Blair Clark wrote in The Washington Post in 1988. “The real answer, I think, was sometimes yes, sometimes no, although he never doubted he was qualified. He himself would only say he was ‘willing’ to take the job — not much of a battle cry.”

McCarthy rambled when campaigning, reciting verse and filling his speeches with references to the 19th-century court-martial of Alfred Dreyfus in France and the Punic Wars of ancient Rome. His scholarly, somber demeanor reflected a background as a former Benedictine novitiate and college professor. However, he was also given to witty ripostes, once comparing Nixon and Johnson to “choosing between vulgarity and obscenity.”

First elected to the House in 1948, he once engaged the red-baiting Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy (no relation) in a televised 1952 debate and, after his 1958 election to the Senate, became one of the Democratic Party’s leading liberal intellects.

McCarthy harbored little affection for the Kennedys or Johnson. He had endorsed Adlai Stevenson over JFK on the floor of the 1960 Democratic Convention and later competed with fellow Minnesotan and then-Senate Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey for the Johnson vice-presidential nomination in 1964. Many Democrats believed Johnson had already chosen Humphrey but relished the convention drama created by floating both names.

“McCarthy was somewhat enigmatic,” Mears said. “He is regarded as a crusader but he was standoffish. He acted like the professor he had been. He didn’t wade in like another politician would. Instead of going immediately to a rally, he would have dinner with the poet Robert Lowell and make people wait. One time he loosened up a bit and played hockey in Concord.”

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Robert Kennedy, who had earlier said publicly that he would not run, now sensed Johnson’s vulnerability and entered the race on March 16 —  just four days after New Hampshire — as a second antiwar candidate.

President Lyndon B. Johnson announced at the end of a televised speech March 31, 1968, that he would not be running for reelection. (Video: LBJ Presidential Library)

The next bombshell dropped on March 31. Johnson announced on television that he was limiting the bombing of North Vietnam and pursuing peace talks. At the end of his speech, he made a statement that stunned the nation and shook the Democratic Party to its core:

“With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day. I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

McCarthy — who would not make it to the White House in that most chaotic of election years or when he ran again in 1972 and 1976 — was speaking to students at Carroll College in Milwaukee when Johnson made his announcement.

“I rushed down the aisle toward the stage, stopped and waved at him to come over,” Mears recalled in his book, “Deadlines Past, Forty Years of Presidential Campaigning: A Reporter’s Story.” “He saw my gesture and dismissed it. I waited a moment, then climbed over the steps to the stage with a cluster of reporters following me, walked over to McCarthy at the microphone and told him Johnson had just announced he was not running.

“For an instant, he froze. Then he flinched, as though the news had hit him physically. He had challenged the power of a President in his own Democratic Party and the president had quit. LBJ had been the target, and the target was gone.”

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