Bill Gardner (AP photo)
CONCORD, N.H. - Leaf peepers, yes. Political junkies, not so fast.
A plan to promote the New Hampshire primary as a tourist attraction has been all but abandoned after the primary's fiercest protector raised concerns about tarnishing the state's political tradition.
"The Presidential primary was not created for an economic benefit for this state," Secretary of State Bill Gardner said Thursday. "People can come take a look at our leaves - that can be encouraged - but the primary is not the same."
Until he got a call from a reporter, Gardner was unaware of the marketing campaign the state Division of Travel and Tourism had planned to roll out early next month. Imagining ads beckoning visitors to come do their tax-free holiday shopping while they checked out the candidates, he quickly arranged to meet tourism official Vicki Cimino to lay out his objections.
"I was pretty blunt with her," he said.
With other states moving up their primaries to share some of New Hampshire's spotlight, Gardner said he doesn't want to promote the idea the primary is a cash cow, which he said it isn't. A study of the 2000 primary estimated the election's economic impact at about $231 million, about the same as the NASCAR races at New Hampshire International Speedway or six-tenths of 1 percent of the state's overall economic activity.
"Some people accuse of us being so adamant about protecting it because we do it for the money," Gardner said. "That's not why we do it."
Tourism officials insist their goal all along was to be a resource for the campaigns and media that descend upon the state every four years rather than to lure more tourists. But in a presentation at a tourism conference last month, Cimino said political tourists were a secondary target.
"I think there's an opportunity to capitalize on some of these political junkies who hear about the New Hampshire primary," she said. "If we're able to market our product creatively, I think there's an opportunity to tap into some new folks."
She described plans to create both a Web site and an extensive press kit directing campaigns and media to the best locations for campaign stops, announcements and interviews. Another component was to be a podcast, developed with Yankee Magazine, that would follow a fictional Presidential candidate around the state.
Cimino wasn't available for comment this week, but tourism division director Alice DeSouza said the podcast plan has been dropped because the magazine determined it wasn't feasible. And instead of a creating a new Web site, the division will link its general site to the New Hampshire Political Library's site, which already provides a wealth of information about the primary.
"The political library will be taking the lead," DeSouza said.
Marketing campaign or not, political junkies already come to watch the spectacle of the primary unfold.
Arthur Powell, a member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee, has led "political safari" day trips to New Hampshire since 1992. A few days before each primary, he rents a bus and takes whoever wants to join him to Manchester, where most of the action is concentrated.
"It gives us some front-row seats to the kind of retail politics that we so enjoy in Massachusetts but don't have the exposure to like you do in New Hampshire," he said. "If you want to get the New Hampshire and Iowa experience, you can't get it on television. You have to go, and bring your warm clothes and boots."
He said highlights of his trips include watching supporters of President George H.W. Bush face off with Pat Buchanan loyalists on a snowy Elm Street in 1992.
"It was a shouting match - I mean, chin-to-chin, in-your-face," Powell said.
In the early years, Powell researched other attractions the group might want to see in New Hampshire. Now, he knows not to bother.
"Honestly, they weren't interested in doing anything else," he said.
Mary Ellen Balchunis, a political science professor who has sent her students at La Salle University in Philadelphia to volunteer during the primary, thought promoting the primary to tourists was a great idea.
"As a political junkie, I would love to visit the home of the first Presidential primary. Why not?" she said, noting that Philadelphia sells itself as the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
"Millions of visitors come. Schools take trips here," she said. "I think New Hampshire should join Iowa and have a tour."
As a parent, Balchunis said she tries to expose her 12-year-old daughter to politics and history wherever possible. On a recent trip to New York, Balchunis suggested they try to find Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign office.
"She, of course, wanted to see Tiffany's," Balchunis said. "She won because it was her spring break."