TILTON, N.H. (Jan. 5, 2012) — Margo Weeks likes to look presidential candidates in the eye and ask tough questions to determine whether she trusts them. In New Hampshire, she can do exactly that.
“You really get a chance to look somebody in the eye and really get a feeling for them as a human being, as a person,” said Weeks, 53, a nurse from Gilford, N.H., and lover of politics.
She is typical of many New Hampshire voters, who take their role seriously in sorting out presidential contenders. Personal interaction between candidates and voters is a defining characteristic of New Hampshire’s primary. Holding town halls, speaking at small group meetings and stopping at diners are rituals on the campaign trail. New Hampshire is different from Iowa in procedure, but both are considered important indicators of the eventual Republican nomination.
For her part, Weeks took a close look at Republican hopeful Rick Santorum at the Tilt’n Diner on Thursday afternoon at a campaign stop. Santorum came to the diner at 1 p.m. and circled through, shaking hands with each patron. Scenes around the diner included a family of eight with a colorful Santorum sign, a man selling Republican pins and a swarm of journalists.
Weeks, a registered Republican, said she tries to go to as many events as possible and hasn’t decided which candidate to support yet. She pushed her way past the press pack to look Santorum in the eye and bring up one of her biggest concerns: his lack of executive experience.
Santorum responded by saying leadership experience matters more than executive experience. The president should not operate like a CEO, he said.
Weeks wasn’t completely sold. But, she said, the interaction told her one thing: “I like the person.”
Also at the Tilt’n Diner, Christine and David Caron took their six children to see Santorum. They displayed a sign of rainbow colors reading “Welcome to New Hampshire Mr. Santorum.” The large family drew attention and got a photo with Santorum. The Caron’s support Santorum because of his stance on foreign policy, the economy and family issues, Christine Caron said.
“I really just appreciate what he is doing,” Christine Caron said.
In another New Hampshire moment, two women from the Occupy movement stood on a table at the diner and shouted a question at Santorum as he was leaving. In response, the Carons jumped up from their table and shouted loud chants “Vote for Santorum” and “Santorum for President.”
In the days leading up to the primary on Jan. 10, candidates will crisscross the state holding town halls, visiting diners and shaking as many hands as possible. On Thursday, for example, Newt Gingrich held town hall meetings and met with local business owners throughout northern New Hampshire. Jon Huntsman held several small rallies. Mitt Romney held an event in the morning, then flew to South Carolina for the day. He returns to New Hampshire on Friday.
All of that is what makes New Hampshire special, said said Chris Galdieri, a political scientist at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.
Many voters embrace their role as the first-in-the-nation state. “There are some people who make decisions early and aren’t star struck, but there are also a lot more people who really do take the role the state has very seriously,” Galdieri said. “They use the opportunity to really ask tough questions of candidates.”
New Hampshire is different procedurally from Iowa, because Iowa is a caucus state. There voters gather in small groups to choose their candidates. In New Hampshire, the primary is like a general election, in which voters cast ballots at the polls.
Some political experts argue New Hampshire also is more representative than Iowa, Galdieri said. The key issues for voters are also different. Iowa voters tend to be more focused on hot-button social issues, he said. But Republicans in New Hampshire tend to focus more on fiscal issues. And New Hampshire often more accurately predicts the eventual Republican nominee, Galdieri said.
Voters’ ability to get up-close-and-personal with candidates and ask tough questions in New Hampshire isn’t a feature of primaries in larger states, Galdieri said. Soon, the lesser-known candidates will drop out, and the front runners spend more time in “a bubble,” he said. “It’s really tough to meet a candidate face-to-face and have any sort of meaningful interaction with them.”
Added Galdieri: “I think that retail politics aspect is one of the things that really does set us apart.”