Nouvelle Hampshire: More Mainstream Than You Think

Hunting season--the political kind--has begun in New Hampshire. After some hemming and hawing, the state finally settled on Feb. 1 for its first-in-the-nation primary. Presidential wannabes are everywhere, girding for a lengthy round of debates and issues forums. And the old verities about the Granite State are coming to the fore: Republicans must play to flinty, gun-toting, taxophobic conservatives in flannel shirts. Democrats must be greener than green, profess their love of wind power, and declare their hatred of nuclear arms and corporate profiteering.

There's only one thing wrong with this picture: It describes a New Hampshire that has ceased to exist. The state's uniqueness as an outpost of Yankee individuality has been muted by a boom that has brought high-tech wealth--and thousands of newcomers. The result: New Hampshire may be a far better barometer of the national mood than in the past. The state "now fits as a piece in a broader national puzzle," says GOP activist Tom Rath.

ANGRY ARMY. When George Bush campaigned for reelection in 1992, New Hampshire was angry and reeling, with 11% of its jobs wiped out by the national recession. Traditional sources of work--timber, textiles, and military bases--were in decline. Republican politics was dominated by rock-ribbed conservatives such as ex-Governor Meldrim Thomson Jr., who once suggested that the National Guard ought to have nuclear weapons. On primary day, Bush was embarrassed by hard-line insurgent Patrick J. Buchanan and his army of the dispossessed.

As the 2000 primary nears, another Bush is seeking his fortune in New Hampshire. But the political terrain seems more hospitable to Texas Governor George W. Bush. New Hampshire ranks first in high-tech employment per capita, second in economic expansion, second in export growth, and fourth in attracting venture capital. Joblessness has dipped below 2%, and the poverty rate is the nation's lowest. The state is increasingly suburban, as old mill towns such as Nashua and Merrimack are reborn as tech havens.

With the boom has come a political revolution: The state has a two-term Democratic governor and its first Democratic state senate since 1912. Some 60% of New Hampshirites now hail from somewhere else. And GOP politics, once dictated by the thundering editorials of Manchester's Union Leader, has softened. A recent University of New Hampshire poll found that most Republican voters back abortion rights, handgun controls, and expanded health coverage. No wonder Buchanan bolted the GOP and two mainstream conservatives, Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain, are leading in early polls.

"This is not a conservative electorate," says Andrew E. Smith, director of UNH's Survey Center. "It's hard to find peasants with pitchforks anymore." The demographic shift has candidates veering to the middle, not the fringes. While Bush senior cast himself as a stern anti-taxer in '88, his son is running as a compassionate conservative aiming to help the poor.

And the younger Bush is "making a connection with the new voters," says pollster Dick Bennett. Increasingly, those voters don't toe any party line. Independents account for 63% of the new registrations since 1990--and can vote in either primary. That could explain why, though they trail elsewhere, anti-Establishment Democrat Bill Bradley and GOP maverick McCain are doing especially well in New Hampshire.

So, please, no more cracks about those wacky Granite Staters having inordinate sway over the Presidential selection process. These days, Nouvelle Hampshire seems much more mainstream--and the candidates' retooled messages show that they sense the change, too.

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