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N.H. politics requires personal touch

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2011

NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — For more than an hour Saturday evening, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty stood in a living room here and played the part that every presidential hopeful has to play to win the New Hampshire primary: political salesman.

Mr. Pawlenty spent the first 15 minutes trotting out his vision. His rehearsed sales pitch spliced together snippets of his biography, his record as governor, his views on what he considers the most pressing issues of the day and the shortcomings of the Obama administration.

Then he got peppered with questions: Did you hold elected office in high school? Do you support the Patriot Act? Will you be tough on drugs? What will you do about the loss of manufacturing jobs to China?

The party at Raymond and Mary Ann Shakir's sprawling home here — complete with a deer head mounted above a fireplace, a wooden bar decorated with a "Drill Baby Drill! sticker and a picture window overlooking the pristine tree-covered hills — is a snapshot of the retail politics that are a staple of the New Hampshire primary season.

"If you can't figure out the retail side of politics in New Hampshire, you don't belong here," said Steve Talarico, a 56-year-old who hosted former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who has yet to jump into the race, at his Harley-Davidson dealership in Manchester. "People need to be touched. They need to be talked to. They need to look you in the eye and see who you are."

More sales pitches will be made Monday when Mr. Pawlenty and most of the other Republicans seeking or toying with a White House bid face off in New Hampshire's first debate of the primary campaign season at St. Anselm College in Manchester. The town-hall-style debate is being sponsored by the New Hampshire Union Leader, CNN and WMUR.

"It's an unofficial start to a campaign that started a few months ago" said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire.

With no clear front-runner in the Republican field, the debate will provide a platform for all of the candidates to introduce — in some cases reintroduce — themselves to voters and to begin to lay out the reasons why they are a cut above the rest of the pack. It's also sure to focus the nation's attention on the Granite State, which hosts 2012's first presidential primary.

But many grass-roots Republicans leave the impression that the election ultimately will be won in living rooms and on porches, not on cable television.

"When you watch people on television, it is the same old line every time," said Bert George, a 70-year-old retiree who drove from nearby Barlett to meet Mr. Pawlenty. "I want the chance to look them in the eye."

Gail McClure, a 67-year-old retiree, said she doesn't take the candidate appearances for granted.

"If the candidates are going to make themselves available to those of us in New Hampshire, I feel it's important that we come out and we give them every opportunity to personally talk to us, look us in the eye and get a feel for them as a person, as an individual — and to see a little bit into their character, rather than their normal talking points," Mrs. McClure said, adding that she relocated to New Hampshire from Pennsylvania about a decade ago in part because of the politics.

While the candidates will not meet every voter, Mr. Duprey said, they'll have a chance to meet all the activists who will turn around and tell people back at their coffee clubs, Rotary Club meetings and churches about the candidates they met.

He pointed to the state's 2000 primary, where Sen. John McCain of Arizona upset Texas Gov. George W. Bush in New Hampshire.

"In 2000, I don't think it was a differentiation of policy between John McCain and then-Gov. Bush that made the difference — it was the style of the campaign," Mr. Duprey said. "Bush came and did a few large events and didn't do enough small events, and frankly I think that was the difference."

It is clear that much of the current field doesn't want to repeat the Bush mistake. In recent days, Mr. Pawlenty, Mr. Huntsman and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas have been among those on the ground, glad-handing potential supporters and opening up the floor for questions.

Mr. Pawlenty finished his sales pitch Saturday by urging the crowd to consider who in the field of Republican contenders can appeal to the entire spectrum of the conservative movement, including social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and national defense conservatives.

"If we are going to have a successful effort to get Barack Obama out of office, we are going to have to have a candidate who authentically and genuinely appeals to all of that," he said. "I think I'm the only candidate in the race who does."

The crowd then clapped, swarmed Mr. Pawlenty and continued to pelt him with questions.

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