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John H. Sununu

Beating 'Senator Straddle,' one lunch at a time

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John H. Sununu
December 9, 2007

THE NEW HAMPSHIRE primary has had a major impact on presidential elections because citizens of the state commit the time and effort needed to get to know the candidates. The 1988 Republican primary was the classic example of what makes the primary so unique and so important.

That year, the competing campaigns of Vice President George H.W. Bush and Senator Robert Dole were managed by experienced political figures who themselves had run and won. Both campaigns knew that organization, personal contact, and volunteer involvement were critical. They understood voters would go to events to learn, and not just to cheer. That involvement keeps voters thinking and choosing, and often only making a final decision at the end.

The Dole campaign was led by Senator Warren Rudman and former Attorney General Tom Rath. Former Governor Hugh Gregg, Senator Judd Gregg and I organized the Bush campaign. Joining us was Andy Card, who had worked in the vice president's office, and with Massachusetts roots, had observed New Hampshire primaries.

The Bush campaign began coming together in early 1987. The first task was to have a Bush chairman and a vice chairman in every town and voting precinct. The Dole camp had the same objectives. But the leverage and perquisites available to a sitting governor trumps the influence of a senator working in Washington, even one as formidable as Rudman.

The campaign kick-off took place at the Gregg family homestead. Hundreds of volunteers and voters showed up. It was a great start on our goal: to have Bush shake 50,000 hands and have his picture taken with 5,000 supporters.

In New Hampshire, candidates have to deal with the aftermath of the Iowa caucus. In 1980, Bush shocked the Reagan campaign with an unexpected victory in Iowa, so Reagan had to scramble in New Hampshire to get his nomination back on track.

While we expected Bush to win in Iowa, we made sure the New Hampshire campaign could handle any result. For a year we took George and Barbara Bush to coffees, luncheons, rallies, fairs, factories, and schools. We wanted to create a firm, positive perception early - before the closing days when campaigns get hot and tough. A year of preparation for eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire. It was a good old "see-me-touch-me-feel-me" New Hampshire campaign.

There were some memorable events. At a storefront New Year's Eve open house in Concord, thousands came by to shake hands with George and Barbara, and get their Polaroid picture. That evening was frigid, and the line stretched around the block. Senator Gregg and I carried hot chocolate to the folks braving the cold. The warmth of that cold evening impressed a lot of voters.

Regular voters weren't the only people we tried to cultivate. In January, when the Bushes arrived to tape a program at WMUR-TV, the station manager and staff all showed up with their families. George and Barbara graciously chatted with everyone and had photos taken.

Iowa tested all our efforts. Bush ended up losing that early caucus badly, coming in third behind Dole and Pat Robertson. But the New Hampshire organization was prepared. Bush had defined his positions and personality with New Hampshire voters for over a year. Whether they agreed with him or not, most knew he was a good man.When they arrived for the last week of campaigning, George and Barbara were a bit down from Iowa. I told them to relax and predicted a victory of about 10 points. The campaign had a reservoir of good will to draw upon.

Everything we did that last week was designed to remind voters why they liked Bush and should support him.Three fast-food breakfasts a day, an 18-wheeler drive, rallies, an ice-fishing stop with Ted Williams during a snowy trek to Wolfeboro to show he cared about the North Country, and visits to malls and town halls and schools. All with the media in close pursuit.

Dole's campaign was doing the same. And he stepped up his attacks on Bush, by charging that the vice president didn't believe in cutting taxes and wasn't a worthy successor to Ronald Reagan. Consultants Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, who were running the Bush effort in Washington, prepared a response ad - now known as "Senator Straddle" - attacking Dole for having voted for tax increases. On Thursday and Friday the campaign debated whether to use it. The Greggs and I urged that it be run. When Bush agreed, the late scramble was on to get the ad on the air.

Fortunately, the WMUR management reopened the rotation to accommodate their new friend, the vice president. Bush beat Dole by 9 percent - almost the 10 percent we promised him. Once again a New Hampshire primary victory would catalyze a successful presidential run. Once more, our voters proved New Hampshire picks presidents. On victory night Vice President Bush said it all: "Thank you New Hampshire."

John H. Sununu is the former governor of New Hampshire.

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