March 1, 2007

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Concord Publisher's Note: Does anyone care anymore?
By Dan Szczesny

We’re not fooling anyone anymore, and the time has come to either give up entirely on the first-in-the-nation primary or recreate it as a marketing tool that benefits the state.

Last week, I wrote (somewhat) jokingly about taking advantage of the primary to ask the candidates questions they normally would not hear, or bother to answer.

This past weekend, I had a conversation with Scott Gregory, the owner of Tea Bird’s Café in Berlin. The café is becoming something of a must-visit for candidates looking for Coos County votes, sort of a Capitol Convenience or Merrimack Restaurant for the Great North Woods. Considering its location, the café is a pretty hip breakfast spot, someplace between an all-out 1950s diner and Starbucks. Hilary Clinton kicked off her New Hampshire campaign up there last week and the place was still buzzing. Pictures were being developed to put on the walls, and the café’s owners were looking for ways to sell themselves as a political destination. It’s a smart move, pretty much the only move for a café in a place like Berlin, and a few other small business owners are beginning to scramble to find some way to get their own pictures in the papers.

My point is that if New Hampshire is going to whine about other states’ infringing on its primary status, it ought to do something about it other than feel entitled. Because let’s be honest, Hilary Clinton looked about as uncomfortable at Tea Bird’s as a bull in a china shop. It’s all a game. None of those candidates would ever normally set foot in a ma-and-pa diner. Scott knows that, has retained his sense of humor about it in fact, and is marketing his place anyway.

As should the state.

So, here’s my suggestion. First, state officials need to stop being so sullen and serious about the primary. Look at it as a Festivus, something to celebrate. The candidates, the media and the entourages are coming, so it’s pointless to work the “destination New Hampshire” angle.

Instead make it fun. Hold a series of primary carnivals in various towns. Have Daniel Webster, Franklin Pierce and Abe Lincoln impersonators/historians debate current events with the candidates. Who wouldn’t want to see Lincoln debate Barack Obama?

Hold re-enactments of famous moments in primary history. The Hippo could rent a U-Haul and haul it in front of the Union Leader building with a snow machine to re-enact Ed Muskie’s famous tears speech. This is something people would come to, and it would re-energize the state’s status.

As it stands now, even the candidates don’t seem to care much one way or the other. They all talk the talk about how important New Hampshire is, but most of the major candidates will miss the April 5 WMUR/Union Leader debate.

If the state is serious about maintaining its primary tradition, it needs to reinvent the way it markets the nearly year-long event. Otherwise, why bother?

If you have any thoughts on the first-in-the-nation primary, e-mail me at dszczesny@hippopress.com.