Joe McQuaid, publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, in his office in Manchester, N.H. (Philip Montgomery)

Correction: A previous version of this story said that newspaper publisher William Loeb endorsed Pete du Pont for president in 1988. In fact, Loeb had passed away; his wife, Nackey S. Loeb, was responsible for the endorsement. A university scholar quoted in the piece said the Boston Globe had the largest circulation in New Hampshire; it does not. And an assertion that the Union Leader dispatched reporters to find embarrassing information about Re. Philip Crane should have been attributed to Dayton Duncan, a former Democratic operative in the state.

This courtship started like all the others. Back in March, two months before Donald Trump declared his candidacy and his war on Mexican “rapists,” he went to see Joe McQuaid, the publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader. The hallowed institution is the only statewide newspaper in New Hampshire. For six decades, ever since the Granite State began to host the first-in-the-nation primary, McQuaid’s paper has been the loudest conservative voice in state politics. In every presidential cycle, local campaign directors send their candidates there, hoping to win the Union Leader’s endorsement. Trump, too, made the pilgrimage, took selfies with staffers and, in the fall, had lunch with McQuaid at the Derryfield Country Club here.

But the paper’s conservatism is of a traditional sort, and Trump is hardly Barry Goldwater (recipient of the Union Leader’s 1964 endorsement). In the end, McQuaid passed over Trump and endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the Republican race. Then, in December, he compared Trump to Biff, the cartoonishly evil tycoon from “Back to the Future Part II,” in a front-page editorial. Trump shot back, calling McQuaid a “lowlife” and a “loser.” McQuaid parried, running a photo of Trump visiting his office in March and noting that, not long afterward, Trump called the paper “terrific.” Another McQuaid editorial said that if Trump called him for campaign guidance again — something he seemed to do quite often, according to McQuaid — he’d give the billionaire advice that is “definitely not for printing in a family newspaper.”

In a state primary that’s self-consciously a throwback to older traditions, McQuaid’s paper once represented immense political power. The Union Leader could make a candidate, and it has broken quite a few. Its founding publisher, William Loeb III, was less an operator than a political wrecking ball: He used his newspaper to demolish his enemies and build up his pets. Presidential candidates wooed him lest they fall into the former category and suffer the fate of Democrat Edmund Muskie, who, in 1972, appeared to cry in public while responding to particularly sharp Union Leader attacks on himself and his wife. The alleged tears — Muskie later said his face was wet from snow — effectively ended his presidential campaign.

A half-century later, things work differently. Here was Loeb’s successor, the supposed kingmaker, at war with the man leading New Hampshire by nearly 20 points. And though it’s exactly the kind of spat Loeb might have organized, the tolerance for venom from a self-professed institution has dissipated. The quarrel was so unseemly that ABC News announced this month that it would boot the Union Leader as a co-sponsor of the Feb. 6 Republican debate at St. Anselm College here — a revered event just three days before the primary. The Union Leader has hosted it many times before, despite its candidate endorsements; it was a potent reminder of its political influence. Yet it had gotten so carried away this time that ABC saw the paper more as a liability than an asset.

“The current war of words with Trump, coupled with the endorsement already made, put us in a difficult position,” an ABC executive wrote in an email to McQuaid. The network wanted all the candidates to feel that the partners were “not biased in favor of or against anyone on the debate stage.” Within the hour, Trump was crowing about the decision on Twitter, writing, “I am pleased to announce that I had the Union Leader removed from the upcoming debate.”

The Union Leader ran an editorial condemning the ABC decision as “spineless,” but it was too late: ABC hadn’t even consulted with McQuaid before making the decision.

McQuaid can barely disguise his disdain for ABC’s logic, “which is, pardon the vernacular, absolute bulls--t.” And yet there is nothing he can do to change or appeal the decision, one he feels was made not by the channel but the candidate. Trump, who was surging in New Hampshire despite spending very little time there, had clearly realized that it was pointless to participate in the state’s time-honored primary rituals. After a couple of nods in McQuaid’s direction, Trump was able to kick the Union Leader even harder than the once-mighty paper had kicked past contenders.

It is, in a way, the 2016 campaign in miniature: angry, insurgent candidates discarding the traditions that once guided the presidential nominating contest. Like the Union Leader, New Hampshire (long a target of complaints and envy from states less instrumental to the winnowing process) is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Other states are moving up their primaries or banding together in blocs to leverage their power. Participation in the debates is dictated not by anything New Hampshire or Iowa set down but by national ratings. For a time last fall, the two candidates who’d spent the least amount of time in New Hampshire, Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, were the ones with the most commanding leads here. Today, the wrecking ball is no longer the Union Leader but the candidate.

The Union Leader’s tradition of thumbing the New Hampshire GOP primary scale was forged by William Loeb III, who bought the Manchester Union and the Evening Leader in 1946. Two years later, he fused them into the Manchester Union Leader. That same year, he bought out the New Hampshire Sunday News, which had been started by a former Union war reporter, B.J. McQuaid, father of Joe. The elder McQuaid would become the newly combined paper’s editor, but Loeb did the politicking. For someone interested in elections, it was a good time to snap up several newspapers: In 1952, New Hampshire became the site of the country’s first modern presidential primary, with candidates’ names on the ballot instead of delegates’.

For Loeb, it was a windfall of influence and access. Joe Kennedy wined and dined him in an attempt to win support for JFK in the 1960 primary. Loeb refused and, after borrowing some money from a certain union to settle a lawsuit, he became a loyal backer of Jimmy Hoffa in the Teamsters’ battle against another Kennedy brother, Bobby. When the union boss was jailed, Loeb had a plane fly a banner through the skies in 1971 that read “FREE HOFFA NOW — WRITE PRES. NIXON.” Nixon released Hoffa, apparently because Loeb had promised to endorse him in the 1972 New Hampshire primary. (He didn’t: Nixon went to China, rendering him a traitor in Loeb’s eyes.) After Joe Biden proposed giving senators a raise shortly after his election to that chamber in 1972, Loeb wrote in one of his famous front-page salvos that “the voters of Delaware who elected this stupid, conceited jackass to the Senate should kick him in the rear to knock some sense into him.”

Loeb’s intervention has been credited with sealing the fates of a raft of gubernatorial and senatorial primary candidates, and there have been several presidential hopefuls who never governed, in part because Loeb made it his business to ruin them. In 1979, he was so intent on seeing Ronald Reagan win the crown that he dispatched his reporters to Illinois and Washington to write up rumors that Rep. Philip Crane, a young conservative threatening Reagan’s rise, was a womanizer. He had done something similar to Bobby Kennedy, sending staff all over the country to dig up as much dirt on the man as possible, according to Dayton Duncan, a former Democratic operative in the state.

After Loeb’s death, the venom sloshing around the paper’s pages abated. His widow, a newspaper heiress named Nackey Scripps Loeb who took over as publisher, said that she’d rather use a needle where her husband had used a sword. Joe McQuaid, her successor, has been even less savage. “Since then, the Union Leader has not had much of an impact,” says Andrew Smith, head of the polling center at the University of New Hampshire. “It just doesn’t hold the weight that it did, because it wasn’t just about the endorsement; it was about the news coverage. McQuaid doesn’t have the vitriol that Bill Loeb had.”

McQuaid, born just outside town here in 1949, joined his dad’s paper as an office boy in 1965 and eventually dropped out of college to be a full-time Union Leader sports reporter, a job he was already doing on the side. The last straw at college was a journalism class in which the students critiqued one another’s work. “These kids are telling me what’s wrong with my stories,” McQuaid recalls. “And I finally asked one of them: ‘How much do you get for your stories? Because I get $100 a week for mine!’ ”

By 22, he was the Sunday editor, which involved taking down the spitfire editorials Loeb phoned in from his home in Massachusetts. (Loeb may have liked New Hampshire for its political oomph, but he lived in the state next door and, for tax purposes, was a legal resident of Nevada.) Loeb died in 1981, and after Nackey Loeb took over, she elevated McQuaid in 1982 to the top job his father had once occupied.

Despite his 66 years, Joe McQuaid still looks boyish — a mix of mischief and New England WASP humor. Because of his coveted endorsement and salty manner, he has become a staple of campaign reporting over the years. Each election cycle produces a series of stories about McQuaid, the ornery high priest, and he has the anecdotes and souvenirs to prove it. There’s the photo of him with Biden (whom the paper did not endorse) and the stories of having lunch with the Donald. There’s the anecdote about Reagan dropping by the Union Leader’s offices (the paper endorsed him twice). There’s the story of a young JFK pulling up a flatbed truck to the Union Leader’s offices on the eve of the 1960 primary and denouncing Loeb — to wild applause. (Other, non-McQuaid sources say Kennedy did this in a Manchester park, not outside the paper.)

McQuaid’s tenure has also coincided with the paper’s decline, and the Reagan visit helps show how. When Trump came in March to interview with McQuaid, who takes great pride in grilling the candidates to test their mettle, he was waylaid in the lobby, where about two-thirds of the Union Leader’s staff had gathered as word spread that Trump was in the building. Some wanted autographs, others wanted photos, but they all wanted to lay eyes on the man from television. Trump gladly obliged, glad-handing and posing. He turned to McQuaid, who had been watching all this from the side. “Is this the biggest turnout you’ve ever had here?” Trump asked.

No, McQuaid responded. “Ronald Reagan was in here,” he said. “He drew a pretty big crowd.” Even the biggest showstopper of 2016 couldn’t match the old-time buzz.

If the headquarters of the Union Leader look like a school, that’s because, in part, they are. The curving linoleum hallways filled with posters and illuminated by wan fluorescent lighting are split between the editorial staff on one side of the building and an elementary school on the other side, which was once the Union Leader’s circulation department. The circular structure was built in 1990 by Nackey Loeb around a printing press, the warehouse for which the paper is now trying desperately to rent out. New Hampshire’s only statewide paper is now printed off-site, which McQuaid says costs millions of dollars a year less than running its own press. The press was sold for scrap, which almost covered the cost of getting it to the scrap yard, McQuaid says.

The Union Leader, like so many of its local counterparts across the country, has seen better days. The paper that once set the political agenda for New Hampshire and, in presidential election years, for the entire nation has been worn down by the changing tides of media. First came local television, such as WMUR, which cut into the Union Leader’s dominance; then came the Boston networks and papers, which reached further and further into New Hampshire. Then came the Internet, which caused utter chaos at newspapers far more established and moneyed than the Union Leader. As New Hampshire increasingly becomes a Massachusetts bedroom community, Democrats outnumber the Union Leader’s core constituency: local Republicans.

Today, the Union Leader’s print circulation hovers around 40,000, about half of its heyday reach. The paper has migrated online, where McQuaid says it pulls in around 800,000 monthly unique visitors, but according to ComScore, the media industry standard, the figure is closer to 160,000. The people reading those front-page editorials are growing steadily older and out of pace with a younger, more liberal, more digitally oriented population.

When the paper was growing, Loeb borrowed from people like Jimmy Hoffa to keep it in the black. Today, McQuaid resorts to different tricks: The Union Leader is now owned by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications, which just loses money on it. “I don’t know if you’ve heard about newspapers lately?” McQuaid says with a grimace. “They’re not doing so well. And the stupid guy who runs the Union Leader can’t seem to make a profit.” The school makes up the cash by renting space to other companies and hosting a fundraiser with a marquee speaker every year — another privilege of an early primary state.

With the proliferation of other media voices, the Union Leader’s edge is gone, even among local stalwarts. “The conservative voter in New Hampshire reads the Union Leader in the morning, listens to talk radio on their way to work and goes home and turns on Fox News,” says Dante Scala, who teaches political science at the University of New Hampshire. “The Union Leader now has to share its influence.”

That means its endorsement is also less meaningful, especially among a new class of politicians. “There’s a small circle in Manchester that thinks it’s really important, but the further out you get from Manchester, the more it’s just another paper,” says Jack Flanagan, the Republican majority leader in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. “Yeah, it’s nice to get the endorsement, but it’s just another trophy on the mantel.”

When I met with McQuaid in his office in September, he was already mulling his anointment. The Union Leader may no longer be the state’s most powerful force, but candidates still show up to audition and flatter the maestro. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had just gamely endured the traditional hour-long interrogation by McQuaid, his editorial writer and executive editor. As Graham’s handler tried to wrap up the session and hustle him out the door, Graham pleaded, “Can I have five more minutes?”

“I’ll give you three and a half,” the aide said.

“Where are we going?” Graham asked. “Can’t be nearly as fun as this!”

“I’ll tell you, papers are relevant,” the senator told McQuaid as they shuffled out of the room together, literally slapping each other on the back.

McQuaid relishes this role. Most of the time, he is a small-town newspaperman who covers school boards and local crime, but every four years, he becomes a power broker courted by the nation’s political celebrities. “What journalist wouldn’t like to have a personal conversation with a candidate for president every week?” says John E. Sununu, a Republican former senator from New Hampshire. McQuaid is protective of this legacy, which means having to be protective of the primary itself. It’s the only thing that, to the rest of the country, distinguishes New Hampshire from Vermont — and the thing that allows McQuaid to transform from backwater publisher to political swami.

“He’s a fierce defender of the New Hampshire primary,” says Tom Rath, a former state attorney general who often advises GOP presidential campaigns. “He thinks that New Hampshire does politics right. I think he likes the idea that you can take these huge campaigns and boil them down, and that none of that happens after the New Hampshire primary. After that, it’s all tarmacs and TV cameras.”

This crowded campaign cycle has meant more love — and more flatterers such as Graham — than ever. “The value of the endorsement goes up the more candidates you have,” McQuaid told me. This is good for him and his paper, I noted. “Sure,” he said, “but it’s also good for the country.” He quickly made sure to rub out the trace of self-aggrandizement. “It’s not about whether I like it or not. It’s part of tradition.”

Yet the value of his endorsement has never been clear, and the changing primary has made it less powerful than ever.

McQuaid owes much of his reputation to the laying-on-of-hands he gave Sen. John McCain in 2008. The candidate, almost out of money, lay dying on the ropes; he had laid off most of his staff and was doing little more than bus-stop appearances. The Union Leader’s imprimatur led to a lifesaving transfusion of donations, reviving his candidacy and propelling him to victory in the GOP primary a month later. “The surprise endorsement came at such a critical juncture at his campaign,” says Mike Dennehy, who ran McCain’s New Hampshire operation. McCain was not the kind of movement conservative the newspaper usually backed, and Mitt Romney had a vacation home in New Hampshire. McQuaid’s support “gave McCain the jolt at the moment he needed it most,” Dennehy says. “It gave him the credibility he needed, with New Hampshire voters and with conservatives.” He eventually won the nomination.

But with that notable exception, the Union Leader’s record as kingmaker is muddled. Loeb, who endorsed candidates like John Ashbrook in 1972 , picked the eventual Republican nominee only twice: Nixon in 1968 and Reagan in 1980. McQuaid’s track record is even worse. In the 2000 campaign, he endorsed Steve Forbes. (George W. Bush, McQuaid told me, was an “empty suit, though he filled out the suit quite nicely after 9/11.”) McCain won the New Hampshire primary that year with 49 percent; Forbes came in third with 13 percent. In 2012, McQuaid picked Newt Gingrich, who, in McQuaid’s opinion, had “the experience, the leadership qualities and the vision to lead this country in these trying times.” Gingrich placed fifth in New Hampshire with less than 10 percent. McQuaid’s horse this time, Christie, was averaging sixth place in polls in the state as of Wednesday, according to Real Clear Politics.

The losing record doesn’t faze McQuaid, though. “We’ve done better opposing people than proposing people,” he explains — a conveniently unfalsifiable claim. His approach in some ways mirrors the Republican Party’s: It’s not about predicting the winner or lifting a pol to the nomination. It’s about a subjective but platonic ideal. “It’s important to tell people who we think can do a good job,” McQuaid says.

Trump smelled this by summer and suspected that he could begin disregarding McQuaid with impunity. “Knowing you as I do, I feel it is unlikely I will be getting the endorsement from you and the Union Leader,” Trump wrote to McQuaid in declining to participate in the paper’s Voters First Presidential Forum in August at St. Anselm College. The forum allowed any candidate to participate, unlike the networks’ habit of arraying competitors onstage based on their national poll numbers — a direct affront to the intensely local New Hampshire primary. Trump didn’t see the point: “I have made a great fortune based on instinct and that, unfortunately, is my view,” he went on in his letter to McQuaid. “Therefore, and for other reasons including the fact that I feel there are too many people onstage to have a proper forum, I will not be attending.” It was a dagger at the Union Leader’s ability to command the attention of candidates.

Another tradition, also started by Loeb, is to “endorse every day,” which effectively means walloping those not lucky enough to win the Union Leader’s nod. To this day, McQuaid beams, “we hammer the hell out of the people we didn’t endorse” — both in the news pages and in the editorials. So even as McQuaid endorsed Christie, he couldn’t help jabbing Trump in the ribs. “Other candidates have [also] gained public and media attention by speaking bluntly,” McQuaid wrote. “But it’s important when you are telling it like it is to actually know what you are talking about. Gov. Christie knows what he is saying because he has experienced it. And unlike some others, he believes in what he says because he has a strong set of conservative values.”

This ignited the feud with Trump, and the more Trump attacked McQuaid and the Union Leader, the more McQuaid and the Union Leader blasted Trump. In choosing against the electorate’s instincts, the paper was giving admirable voice to its principles. But it also put the institution further out of step with voters each day. (To say nothing of the integrity of news coverage: New Hampshire political lore has it that Loeb let Reagan’s campaign manager write articles and headlines. McQuaid doesn’t allow Christie’s staff the same courtesy, but the Union Leader has faithfully chronicled his meetings with police chiefs and his exhortations that voters ignore polls. One recent piece, headlined “Christie tells voters to be wary of Trump,” was essentially a transcript of the governor’s town hall.) As for Trump’s war on “lowlife” McQuaid, the publisher shrugs. “At least he didn’t say I was low energy.”

In the end, McQuaid sees the fortunes of the Union Leader linked inextricably with the fortunes of the New Hampshire primary — and he may not be wrong. Some knock the primary-industrial complex, but to McQuaid it is a sacred custom that he is intent on preserving. He lamented ABC’s decision to boot the Union Leader not because he couldn’t co-host the debate (“It doesn’t hurt our brand,” he reassured me this month) but because it clearly disrespected New Hampshire’s method of picking a president.

McCain’s 2008 Lazarus moment in New Hampshire would never be possible today, McQuaid says, because of the way the Republican National Committee and the national media, not those civic-minded Granite State town halls, have powered this race. McCain would probably have suffered the fate of his pal Lindsay Graham, whose low poll numbers trapped him in the undercard debates until he slipped entirely from public view. “If they’re going to do this stuff based on the polling in friggin’ July, you’re not going to have anyone but Trump and Bush, the rich, famous guys,” McQuaid says, noting that he constantly berates his reporters for citing poll numbers too early in the race; he finds them meaningless. “It’s the party’s fault for being in collusion with the networks in making Trump the center of attention. I mean, in the debates he is literally the center of attention.” And don’t even get him started on the networks, which give live coverage to Trump campaign events and then act surprised at his success.

Then there’s the threat of other states trying to mimic — and supplant — New Hampshire’s primacy in the primary season. On March 1, a bloc of seven Southern states will hold a primary blitz, nicknamed the SEC Primary, hoping to attract candidates and to give themselves more say in picking the GOP nominee. “Yes, I do worry,” McQuaid says of the phenomenon. “New Hampshire has not always picked the winner, but it’s always sent a signal to the country that something is either right or wrong.” This year, the country may no longer care about Granite State opinions on the subject.

It’s all rather dismaying, except McQuaid’s upper lip is far too stiff to show it. “I don’t know, everything runs its course,” he says. As for the Union Leader, he’s not too worried: “If we’re declining in influence, why are you writing about me?” he asks. “I think I’m more optimistic about the future of the Union Leader than I am about the future of the New Hampshire primary!” And once that’s over, on Feb. 10 McQuaid and the Union Leader will go back to covering the local heroin epidemic, the high school basketball games, the snowy car crashes with police cruisers.

“We’re just little old New Hampshire, and in three weeks the parade will roll out of town, and we’ll be the Brigadoon again,” McQuaid says. “And we’ll sink back into the mists.”

Twitter: @juliaioffe

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