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A downballot microcosm

All politics is local, but most of the presidential campaigns' New Hampshire teams are using Tuesday's vote as an early test of their grassroots strength.
/ Source: National Journal

Another Saturday in Manchester, another presidential candidate in the Red Arrow Diner.

Sen. Christopher Dodd is shaking the last few hands here when Frank Guinta, the city's Republican mayor, walks in. "I was coming for breakfast, and I get to meet the senator!" Guinta says.

Dodd and Guinta had a cordial conversation about their young children and the first-in-the-nation primary as they crossed paths on the campaign trail on Oct. 20, despite the fact that Dodd had endorsed Guinta's Democratic opponent in the upcoming mayoral election and appeared at a campaign event for him the day before.

"Thanks for spending some time in Manchester," Guinta told Dodd.

Early test of grassroots strength
Guinta, a Republican serving his first term as Manchester's mayor, faces attorney and former school board member Tom Donovan (D) in today's general election. The contest is one of the many municipal elections taking place around the state, which come just two months before the expected first-in-the-nation presidential primary. All politics is local, but most of the presidential campaigns' New Hampshire teams are using today's vote as an early test of their grassroots strength.

"For them, it's a little bit like the Spanish Civil War," said Fergus Cullen, the state GOP chairman. "They have an opportunity to go and test their strategies, to train their soldiers in canvassing and turnout operations in preparation for the primary." Across the board, most campaigns have at least encouraged their volunteers to pitch in with the local races. "Each of the campaigns have different abilities," said Mark Roper, Donovan's campaign manager. "To the extent that they can, they are being helpful."

Reid Cherlin, Barack Obama's New Hampshire press secretary, said the campaign has made "thousands of calls" on Donovan's behalf and will be going door-to-door to get out the vote today. Craig Stevens of Mitt Romney's campaign said volunteers have spent 100 hours doing lit drops, sign wavings and phone banking for Guinta. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign has encouraged volunteers and paid staff to volunteer some time working the vote today as well.

"We obviously think it's important to support local Democrats and elect more Democrats," said Clinton spokeswoman Kathleen Strand. "We've been helpful in any way that we can."

Presidential hopeful stands out
Dodd's campaign claims to have gone further than the others. He endorsed Donovan in August, when there was a larger field of candidates in the race. He attended a Donovan fundraiser in October; his wife attended the grand opening of Donovan's campaign headquarters this summer.

"I'm pretty confident they would say that the Dodd campaign has been one of the best candidates, if not the best candidate, in supplying them with bodies, and people to do visibility, and doing other field activities," said Bryan DeAngelis, Dodd's New Hampshire spokesman. "He's been a good Democrat. He's been friendly to Sen. Dodd. So we're just happy to help."

Local candidates grateful for support
Donovan declines to play favorites, saying he's grateful for whatever support he has received from the candidates. "They've all been good," he said. "They also see it as a good way for them to learn local politics, because our election is a couple months before the primary, and because of that this is a way for them to learn the community, learn how to do retail politics."

Guinta also stresses the support he's received from all of the candidates, most recently a joint retail stop on Monday with another mayor: Rudy Giuliani. He even thanks Fred Thompson, who raised some eyebrows when he canceled a scheduled appearance at a fundraiser for the mayor last month.

"It was a scheduling conflict that came up at the last minute. In presidential politics that happens," Guinta said. "But I'm pleased that he's encouraging me and supporting my effort here."

Dems hope to build on 2006 wins
Every fundraiser counts for Guinta, because Democrats have marshaled considerable third-party support for Donovan. The New Hampshire Democratic Party specifically has played an active role in the local race, seeking to build on momentum from its historic wins in the 2006 election. Beyond the state's two Republican senators, Guinta is arguably the top Republican remaining after Democratic Gov. John Lynch beat out Republican Jim Coburn in last year's landslide election.

Guinta is "sort of the tallest Republican standing right now. So certainly they're putting a lot of resources into trying to defeat him," Cullen said. "The Democrats have been targeting [him], trying to knock him off. If they fail to do that, it'll be a feather in our cap."

Guinta doesn't expect the state's blue wave to be an obstacle, stressing his nonpartisan approach to the office. "Yes, I'm a Republican, and I'm proud of it," he said. "But running a city is about doing what's in the best interest of the city as a whole. And that's why I'm able to create and establish strong Republican support, strong Democratic support, and strong independent support."

Even Donovan expects the result to be immune to national trends. "I think the local issues of public safety, and education and economic development are really what are going to make the decision for voters," he said. Still, Donovan notes that on the campaign trail, he's heard a lot of talk from voters about national issues: health care, the war in Iraq, immigration.

After today's election, the presidential primary will officially become the only game in town. It's a signal to voters who remain undecided to start narrowing their choices.

"I think you're starting to see more and more people make the decisions, but there's still a significant amount of people that are undecided," Guinta said. "Myself included."