Peterboro, NH–With less than two hours to go before the polls close in New Hampshire today, Secretary of State Bill Gardiner was predicting that turnout in the presidential primary would be at least 100,000 voters more than participated in 2000–the last time both major parties had contested primary bouts in the Granite State.
Two colleagues from the BBC and I found strong evidence of this this morning,in a drive from Concord, the capital of New Hampshire, to bucolic Antrim to Peterboro, which John McCain hailed as the start of his dramatic 2000 primary victory when he held his 100th town meeting there two evenings ago.
In Antrim (population 2600), Town Moderator Bill Flanders told us that about 300 out of 1758 registered voters had already cast ballots by the time we arrived at the Town Hall at 11:00 AM (when polls had barely been open four hours).
But Flanders, who oversees town meetings and elections, also pointed out that "50 first-time voters came in and, under our same-day registration law, registered to vote for the first time." Somewhat surprisingly, with all the media focus on the Democratic contest and the continuing reports that New Hampshire is trending Democratic, "the split was about 50-50 between Democratic and Republican primary ballots requested by the new voters," Flanders added.
Most of the "undeclared" voters we spoke to outside the Town Hall said they cast votes for either Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain–both considered primary favorites in the twilight of the primary campaign. In a state where Mike Huckabee was thought to be running a distant third behind McCain and Mitt Romney, three undeclared Antrim voters volunteered that they had made up their mind over the weekend to vote for the former Arkansas governor. Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Went said they decided to back Huckabee because "he seemed to be an honest man and a regular guy."
The primary turnout notwithstanding, the morning voting must have been a memorable surprise to some participants as they came out of the Town Hall: along with my microphone-brandishing colleagues from Britain and me, there was a National Public Radio reporter and her producer–visitors they don’t normally welcome to Antrim.
"GRAND OLD McCAINIAC" PREDICTS ANOTHER NH WIN
At a time when the bulk of elected and party officials endorsed George W. Bush for President in the 2000 primary, one moderate Republican who had been out of office for 28 years weighed in for John McCain. As he worked the voters at City Hall here in Peterboro, former two-term Gov. Walter Peterson predicted his friend would again win tonight.
"What struck me about John was his resiliency,"said Peterson, a target of the Manchester Union-Leader when he was governor and who was ousted in the GOP primary by conservative Meldrim Thomson in 1972. Peterson recalled how things looked bleak for McCain last year, amid reports his campaign had misspent money in a big way and many top campaign staffers left him. McCain, according to Peterson, "did not dwell on it, and just got his supporters together and said ‘what are we going to do next?’ He moved on."
The former governor and speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives (where his son Andy now serves) added that "I started the day with John at 5:30 AM, went through seven town hall meetings, all of which had huge crowds, and we didn’t stop until 11:30 PM. So don’t tell me he doesn’t have the energy for the job!"
World War II veteran Peterson pointed out that "I’m 81 and John is 71. I agree it’s time to turn things over to younger leaders."
MICHIGAN GOP CHAIRMAN IN NH
Manchester, N.H.–"Saul’s coming tomorrow," New Hampshire’s GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen told me at the downtown Raddison Hotel, eliciting turned heads and some open mouths from press colleagues who also knew Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis.
Why, we wondered, would the state Republican leader be here when his own state is holding the next presidential primary January 15th? Didn’t he have enough to do in his own state?
It didn’t take us long to figure out what self-styled "Kemp-Gingrich Republican" Anuzis was up to. Inarguably neutral in the GOP presidential sweepstakes, Anuzis, we concluded, was on hand in the event of a McCain win and a Romney defeat. With so many reporters setting up shop in South Carolina and appearing to ignore Michigan, Anuzis was here to, in effect, "drum up business" and get political pundits to "cover their bets"–that is, not to write off his state if it becomes the site of Romney’s stand for political survival.
The night before the Iowa caucuses, Massachusetts GOP National Committeeman and Romney advisor Ron Kaufman told me that defeats in the first two states meant only that his man would fight on in the thir–where he was born and his father was a revered governor. "If we lose Iowa and New Hampshire, we go to Michigan," Kaufman told me without hesitation.
One of my colleagues from the BBC, who had earlier said he was "passing on Michigan but will see you in South Carolina," told me a few hours ago: "I’m putting in for Michigan on the 15th."