Don't take our primary for granted

GOFFSTOWN - New Hampshireís first-in-the-nation primary status has always seemed like a birthright. As little as four years ago, it would have seemed absurd to hold a panel discussion about its importance.

But with at least 20 states now making Feb. 5 a national primary of sorts, New Hampshireís unique contest suddenly sees its future on the line. Itís believed that as the national primary calendar becomes more frontloaded, this stateís primary will lose its significance.

So a panel talk about the primary among top political pundits and players Wednesday night sounded less like a rhetorical exercise and more like a call to action to preserve New Hampshireís role in choosing a president.

"Retail politics canít be duplicated anywhere in the country," Gov. John Lynch said. "The traditions that took New Hampshire 50 years to create canít be simply made in any other state."

Lynch was a special guest at the event, hosted by the state Democratic Party and held at Saint Anselm Collegeís Institute of Politics. He left shortly after speaking, and allowed a group of reporters, activists from the Democratic and Republican parties and a professor to sort out the challenges and implications of a new political horizon.

The consensus: Itís too early to tell just how much New Hampshireís role will lessen in the future, but voters should continue to actively scrutinize presidential candidates.

"Itís a service we provide. Itís not some kind of benefit we have," said Bill Shaheen, a Democratic activist who ran John Kerryís state presidential campaign in 2004. "If the country had listened to us in 2000, we would have had either Al Gore or John McCain as president, and tell me: Where would we have been now?"

Gore and McCain won this stateís primary that year, but both didnít have to contend with a compressed schedule following their victories. This time around, New Hampshireís primary is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 22, giving candidates roughly two weeks to prepare for the new super primary day.

Despite the new calendar, New Hampshire can make the most of this sea change, several panelists said. The stateís brand of politicking - personalized town-to-town campaigning - will have value nationally with the process becoming more about well-funded candidacies and introductions to voters through only television, they said.

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide LaMontagne, who also ran Dan Quayleís 2000 state presidential campaign, stressed the need for activists on both sides of the aisle to get involved earlier than usual and open their homes to all candidates. He said New Hampshire stands to gain if a candidate can "bounce" from a good showing here into Feb. 5.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner can advance New Hampshireís primary date if he feels the vote is threatened by other statesí voting.

Carl Cameron, a FOX News political reporter, echoed LaMontagne and other panelists in urging New Hampshire residents to make the most of their primary privileges. The onus of protecting the stateís first-in-the-nation status canít weigh on Gardner, said Cameron.

Voters should demand access to candidates, and not accept standing outside rallies with thousands of people, Cameron said. Prod the candidates into visiting your home and other small venues, he said. "In New Hampshire, if you make noise, youíll get it," he said.

The reality of the new "national" primary became even clearer during the talk. CNN political analyst Bill Schneider held out his BlackBerry and announced California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just committed his state to moving its primary to Feb. 5.

Schneider said if New Hampshireís vote becomes irrelevant this election cycle, then its primary will be irreparably damaged. But if a candidateís success or failure affects the Feb. 5 vote, then "everyone will look at New Hampshire and say, 'You did it.í "

John DiStaso, political reporter for The Union Leader newspaper, replied that Schneiderís forecast means that New Hampshire voters from now on have to select only big-name candidates to make a difference nationally. Granite State voters can thus no longer do what they always do, DiStaso said, and back long-shots.

Dante Scala, a Saint Anselm political science professor, added that New Hampshire "voters think anyone can play, and theyíre willing to give candidates at least a chance to be heard."