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In N.H., some fret about too little, too early

With New Hampshire's primary a mere five days after Iowa’s caucuses, restaurants and hotels are anticipating less business, and some people fear getting less attention from the candidates.
/ Source: The New York Times

At the Merrimack Restaurant on Elm Street, where a mural of past presidential candidates adorns the red brick facade, Maria Saitas is worried. Not only will New Hampshire’s primary be over earlier than ever next year, but the window between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests — a mere five days in early January — will be wincingly brief.

“We’ll absolutely lose money,” said Ms. Saitas, who bought the restaurant with her sister in 1981 and has welcomed virtually every major presidential candidate since then. “The more time they spend here, the better off we are.”

She is among many New Hampshire residents grumbling about the circumstances that led their state to schedule its primary for Jan. 8, a decision meant to protect its influential role in the presidential race as dozens of other states move up their nominating contests.

Restaurants and hotels are anticipating less business, but some state officials and residents fear worse: that the short interval after the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 will mean less attention from the candidates and insufficient time to mull Iowa’s results before casting their own votes.

“I wish we could go back to the ’70s, when there was a full month between the two states,” said Raymond Buckley, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “With all the candidates trying to divide their time between the two states, they are wasting an inordinate amount of money and jet fuel and maybe not really getting to know the communities.”

But William M. Gardner, New Hampshire’s longtime secretary of state, said pride should remain the dominant emotion here, despite the compressed schedule. Mr. Gardner pointed to a study by the University of New Hampshire in 2000 that showed that a primary here had a smaller economic impact than a single weekend of Nascar races at the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon.

“This primary was never about the money for us,” said Mr. Gardner, who settled on Jan. 8 last week after Michigan’s primary was set for Jan. 15. “There’s a reason we have it, but it’s not economics or fame.”

Under state law, New Hampshire must hold its primary at least seven days before any “similar election,” a tradition Mr. Gardner calls crucial for the nation as a whole. (Iowa’s caucuses can come earlier because they are different from the primary process.)

“Our law only says that whatever happens here, there needs to be time for the rest of the nation to reflect afterward,” said Mr. Gardner, a Democrat. “That’s what’s important.”

The New Hampshire and Michigan primaries will be followed by contests in Nevada, South Carolina and Florida by month’s end. More than 20 states have scheduled their contests for Feb. 5, the earliest date allowed by the parties without special exception.

At the Wayfarer Inn in Bedford, where news media outlets from around the world have booked rooms and paid impressive bar and restaurant tabs in past primary seasons, a manager said CBS and Time magazine had booked all 175 of its rooms at $249 apiece for a week in early January. But the manager, Ian Braziller, said reporters used to stay at least three days longer.

Making matters worse, the Wayfarer had to turn down requests from wedding parties and other groups seeking rooms in January while it waited for Mr. Gardner to choose a primary date. It was worth it, Mr. Braziller said — in election years, the hotel gets more than 10 percent of its business from the lead-up to the primary — but still nerve-racking.

“We were stuck in limbo for months,” Mr. Braziller said, “and it was really tough.”

Others found a bright side, saying the candidates began visiting much earlier than usual because it was clear that New Hampshire’s primary would come unusually early.

“It started so early this year that we have pictures of some of the candidates wearing shorts,” said Paul Manuel, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester. “In the past, we’ve only seen them in parkas.”

Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said most of the state did not reap any economic benefit from primary season, because the population, and hence campaign events, were concentrated in the southeast corner.

One television station, WMUR in Manchester, gets a lot of advertising revenue, Mr. Smith said — including so much from Steve Forbes, a Republican candidate in 1996 and 2000, that the station built a new wing known locally as “The House That Forbes Built.”

“But the perception that there’s a tremendous amount of money coming into the state is just not accurate,” Mr. Smith said.

On the other hand, he said, the briefer window between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests could hurt candidates who lose a tight race in Iowa.

“If a Clinton or a Romney gets beaten in Iowa and is banking on New Hampshire as a firewall state,” Mr. Smith said, “it gives their campaign less time to come back.”

But Mr. Manuel said New Hampshire voters were too independent to be swayed by what happened in Iowa, even if they had less time to make their own decisions. He pointed to a beloved phrase here: “In Iowa they pick corn; in New Hampshire they pick presidents.”

“If that theory holds up, certainly it won’t matter if it’s one day, five days or 100” between the contests, he said. “Then again, we haven’t been here before. It’s going to be interesting to find out.”