Past N.H. winners defend first status

MANCHESTER - Pat Buchanan and Gary Hart visited New Hampshire on Monday to defend the state's first-in-the-nation primary - a contest they both won before eventually losing their party's nomination.

More than half the states have considered moving their primaries forward on the calendar in an effort to get more access to candidates and offer a more diverse voting population. Critics say that the entire primary process could be over on Feb. 5 and create a nine-month, head-to-head general election.

"If you hold a national primary, it'll be a validation of a Gallup poll," said Buchanan, a three-time presidential candidate who won the state's Republican primary 1996.

The states moving forward, including California, are making a mistake, Hart said.

"It's so silly for California to think that by moving forward, they'll see more of the candidates," said Hart, who won New Hampshire's Democratic primary in 1984.

Hart said New Hampshire should preserve its first-in-the-nation status to give underdog candidates a shot.

"If you take that away, the only people who can run for office are those with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars," Hart said.

Hart remembered that after he won the state's primary in 1984, he was able to tap donors and demonstrate a credibility some had doubted.

"All of the sudden, I could afford an airplane and we were hopscotching in nine states," Hart said.

Both primary victors visited the state to accept awards from the New Hampshire Political Library, along with former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card.

"It's very important for American politics that a small state have the chance to help pick the next president," Card said. "Other states wish they were first, but they're not." Card served as the top aide to President George W. Bush, a candidate who didn't spend much time in New Hampshire during his 2000 primary challenge. Sen. John McCain won the state's primary that year before stumbling in South Carolina and never recovering.

A national primary, Card said, would not let candidates build momentum.

"If the Red Socks had to play the World Series game right after the preseason, the rest of the season, it's irrelevant," Card said.

If the front-loaded primary is allowed to stand, the results in New Hampshire will filter out candidates who post lower poll numbers.

"The other candidates are going to win here or goodbye and good luck," Buchanan said.

The state boasts high voter turnout: 1.3 million people live here and 80 percent of registered voters cast ballots in 2004.