'Out on a Limb' column: NHPR chooses Exeter as primary 'laboratory'
Hillary Clinton
Sen. Hillary Clinton listens to questions from the audience during a stop at Exeter Hospital to meet with health care professionals and New Hampshire mothers on Friday, May 11, 2007 in Exeter, New Hampshire. At left, Shaundra Lee Page, a single mother from Stratham, listens. (Rich Beauchesne photo / SMG)

Across the country, every political candidate from town selectman to presidential candidate pays homage to the voters and political activists living in grassroots land. Especially in a state like New Hampshire, with its deep connections to participatory democracy, with its legacy of a massive state legislature and town meeting-season rituals, the sense of citizen obligation appears to run higher here than most places, which makes it an ideal fishing ground for candidates every presidential primary cycle.

Without grassroots support, without the momentum from ordinary folks who become candidate surrogates — spreading the good word to their neighbors, making the phone calls and writing letters to the editor at the local paper — it can be almost impossible to win the New Hampshire primary on name recognition and establishment reputation alone (I'm not speaking about incumbent candidates, of course).

A little history here: George W. Bush found that out in 2000 when his lackluster, top-heavy campaign was trumped decisively by John McCain's grassroots wildfire of enthusiasm.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale found that out in 1984 in the Democratic primary, when Sen. Gary Hart out-hustled and out-organized him for an upset win that surprised few here who saw what was happening on the ground (Hart's state campaign was led by Jeanne Shaheen of Madbury, who more than a decade later became the first woman governor in state history.)

The national media herds that cover our first-in-the-solar-system circus also sing the praises of the grassroots, but in reality pay minimal attention except as color inserts placed into stories driven by traditional horse-race and poll-driven themes. Outsider coverage can range from the very good to insufferably clichéd and shallow. Speaking from considerable experience, I know the local media swarms across the state also give into the temptation of candidate-centric reporting that relegates activist voters to movie-extra status.

As he prepared to cover his third presidential primary, Jon Greenburg vowed to take a different route. Greenburg, the executive editor of New Hampshire Public Radio, wanted to maximize his news resources and focus his energy on the grassroots activity of one place. Exeter was the place he chose, and his goal with the ongoing series, "Our Primary — Your Story" is to dissect and spotlight the grassroots zeitgeist of this politically and socioeconomically diverse town that has the look and feel of New Hampshire. It has activists on both sides already engaged and talking to him, each other and the candidates.

"Exeter is a good laboratory to see those people who embody the traditional grassroots," Greenberg told me recently. "In this single community, there's a fire hose of information. There are a lot of people participating and there's a full range of perspectives."

These Exeter perspectives are from folks like Holly and Philip Tisdall of Exeter, a staunchly Republican couple frustrated with liberal bias coverage in the media and are hoping to have their story told. They have a son in the U.S. Navy who has served two tours in Iraq (and another son who will be commissioned an Army officer when he graduates from the University of Michigan next year), and they believe President Bush has been a great leader for the country. Holly is the founder of the Seacoast Republican Women's Club, and Philip told me jokingly because it's the largest such organization in the state (180 members and counting), no Republican candidate can get far in the state "without Holly's endorsement."

Then there are staunch Democrats and senior citizen activists Pat Yosha and Frank Heffron who were both swept up in the grassroots surge of former Vermont Gov. Hoard Dean in 2003. They meet regularly with a group at the Loaf and Ladle to talk about the candidates, the issues and the importance of electing a Democrat as president. Yosha told me the group has either met or will meet personally with all the Democratic candidates, likely more than once, before the first votes in cast — and the campaigns are sending organizers regularly to their Loaf and Ladle meetings.

"There's a myth of engagement about the New Hampshire electorate," Greenberg said. "There's lot of truth to that myth. Not every person has met a candidate, but as least 20 percent of them have, which is remarkable."

What Greenberg also has uncovered so far in his series — which has been picked up by the National Public Radio show "Weekend Edition Sunday" — are activists taking their time and taking their future votes seriously. They are especially aware of the primary front-loading process nationally that could make New Hampshire's primary vote even more important in this cycle.

"Many, many voters are working at two levels — personal preference and strategic," he said. "They are very aware of the potential impact of their vote and don't want to squander it."

And they are pulled to and fro by media coverage about fund raising and polling that can "make them question their own judgment" about their preferred candidate.

The Tisdalls, who have lived in New Hampshire since 1987, said they are weighing a balance "of leadership and management" for their potential choices — leadership on the foreign affairs front and management savvy to deal with what Philip said is the looming fiscal train wreck of entitlement spending for Social Security and Medicare programs.

"There's no free lunch," said Philip, a pathologist, who believes the media has not appreciated the historical economic boom the country has experienced during the Bush administration. Instead, they have focused too much on partisan Democrats and their issues such as threatened "constitutional liberties" or distorting the context of the Iraq war.

Yosha, a retired educator, enjoys the conversations at the Loaf and Ladle. She said the group had originally planned to be more bipartisan, but she admits to not going out of her way to recruit a Republican. The group is talking about a wide range of issues, from health care to reviving the Equal Rights Amendment, one of Yosha's major passions.

And, of course, there is Iraq. While matters such as funding and pulling out dominate the headlines today, Yosha wants to hear more from candidates about the aftermath.

For his part, Frank Heffron, a retired lawyer, savors each opportunity to meet all the candidates, but has some advice for the media stampede: He wants to see the media give more coverage to so-called second-tier candidates such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

"He has a quality resume, but these second-tier candidates have to labor in the vineyard, and it's too bad the word doesn't get out."

Greenberg's goal in his Exeter project is to get the word out about what's happening in Exeter and to spread that word nationally. His original idea has evolved into a more ambitious project to connect voters from New Hampshire with those in California through Web-based ventures like the Primary Place page (www.nhpr.org) and new communication mediums such as YouTube. In a joint project with KPBS in San Diego, on May 19, NHPR is holding an event for Exeter residents to "step up to the microphone" and weigh in on the presidential candidates and the issues.

The event, which will take place at Exeter Town Hall from 10 a.m. to noon, is part of a larger effort to encourage citizen input about the primary experience and share it with the rest of the country. (Disclosure alert: Seacoast Media Group, the parent company of Herald Sunday, is one of the co-sponsors of the event.)

"I believe this can build generational bridges and give people in Exeter another way to enjoy community life," he said. "Their perspectives ought to have a certain power."

Ultimately, Greenberg recognizes that journalists are like bandits who borrow and steal stories, and with this project he'd like to even the scales.

"At the end of the of the day, I would love to hear that I gave something back to the people of Exeter."

Political columnist Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of Herald Sunday and the Portsmouth Herald. He can be reached at mmccord@seacoastonline.com.