June 27, 2008

Unity Again Puts N.H. At Center Stage

By Scott MacKay

This rural town today will serve as the backdrop for the Democrats' hopes to unite and carry the Granite State in November.

UNITY, N.H. -- The hamlet where Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton meet today for the first joint public appearance since the end of their bruising campaign for the presidential nomination has one store, which sells the town's unofficial souvenir: a T-shirt screen-printed with a moose sleeping on a hammock over the words, "Unity: Life in the Slow Lane."

A no-stoplight community of dirt roads, lake views and wood stoves, Unity's town center, which consists of Will's Place (the store), a white clapboard Town Hall, a volunteer fire station and an elementary school, was invaded yesterday by an army of Secret Service agents, state police, political operatives, reporters, TV crews and workers setting up temporary aluminum bleachers.

Every time Cheri LeMere, cashier at Will's Place, spied an anxiety-ridden Blackberry-toting politico, she but the brakes on her northern New England twang.

"When I see them, they're all in such a hurry, I just talk slower.

"We've never had anything like this before, that's for sure," says LeMere.This afternoon the town's population of roughly 1,600 -- if you count Unity and the villages of East Unity and West Unity -- will triple to about 6,000 as Democrats throng a rally to kick off Clinton's campaign to help Obama win the presidency in the November election against Ariz. Sen. John McCain.

The two former combatants will speak on a meadow outside the Unity Elementary School, where the town's 120 children in kindergarten through eighth grade learn their lessons.

Though Unity may appear like a place out of a Norman Rockwell magazine cover, circa 1958 -- plaid-shirted men heading off to the lake to catch bass -- it is the 2008 election that brings Clinton and Obama to the only swing state in ocean blue New England.

Obama has jumped out to a double-digit lead over McCain in recent New Hampshire public-opinion polling, but local Republicans and Democratic leaders say they expect the results to be much closer by November. New Hampshire may have only four electoral votes, but everyone here knows how critical the state has been in recent elections: In 2000, Al Gore lost here to George W. Bush by about 7,000 votes in a race where Ralph Nader captured 25,000 votes running on a third-party line. Had Gore taken the state, he would have won the White House, regardless of the Florida results.

"Anybody who thinks New Hampshire doesn't mean anything is wrong" says Tad Devine, a top Gore strategist in 2000. "I lived through an election where that little state meant everything."

Not too long ago, the Republican party was embedded as deeply in New Hampshire as the granite in the White Mountains. No longer. A changing population fueled by a diverse economy and retirees from afar settling in the state's tiny villages have transformed the state's politics. In 2006, New Hampshire voters gave the GOP an historic drubbing. The state's two Republican U.S. House members were ousted by Democrats, the state's popular governor, Democrat John Lynch, won a historic landslide and the state's legislature turned Democratic for the first time since 1874.

While the spotlight nationally is on whether Clinton's base of working-class and older women will rally around Obama, in New Hampshire, so far, the Illinoisan is doing very well with female voters, according to recent polls. Obama leads McCain by 22 percentage points among women voters and is splitting male voters evenly with McCain.

"At the moment, the state is moving to Obama," says Dick Bennett, pollster for the American Research Group, based in Manchester, the state's largest city. "A lot of the independents think McCain has moved too close to Bush, who is not at all popular up here."

Still, no one believes the race is over. McCain won big in the 2000 presidential primary over Mr. Bush and took the 2008 primary here solidly, defeating former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who owns a summer house on Lake Winnepesaukee and was well known because the Boston television news spills over into the busy southern New Hampshire communities, such as Nashua, which service northern Massachusetts bedroom towns.

"McCain is strong here; there is barely a community in New Hampshire where he hasn't visited over several elections," says Dayton Duncan, a Democratic activist and an Obama supporter. "This state has a lot of independents and my sense is that both Obama and McCain are well-positioned to compete for their votes."

Unity was chosen for its symbolic significance. In the Clinton- Obama primary joust, the two candidates tied here: both getting 107 votes. To Republicans, today's planned lovefest between Clinton and Obama evokes a sappy made-for-media event, as if the two were grilling marshmallows over a campfire and urging everyone to sing "Kumbaye."

"This is just too cute by half" says Tom Rath, the former Republican attorney general and longtime GOP loyalist.

"I'm glad they are coming, it's good for the state and all. But this is all symbolism, photo ops and flash and dash. But that's the nature of business these days."

"McCain, I call him the president of New Hampshire," says Rath. "He has a very special relationship with our voters and when he comes here, he'll be doing something substantial."

Unity is in rural Sullivan County, a 45-minute drive from the tweedy liberal college town of Hanover, but a world away from the dons of Dartmouth College. A Unity resident is more likely to drive a Ford F-150 toting a gun rack than a Volvo tuned permanently to New Hampshire public radio. But behind the north country stereotype, there are a few new residents, says Chip Baldwin, principal of the elementary school.

"It's fair to say most people are blue collar but we recently had people coming up here from down country and building or buying houses. And there has been an influx of retirees. You'll drive down a back road and see a modest house, then maybe a mobile home, and then come across an 8,000-square-foot palatial new home."

Some of these newcomers could prove troublesome for McCain.

Larry Owen and his wife, Diana Owen, moved a year ago from San Diego, Calif., to a farmhouse built here in 1776.

"This place is a slice of heaven," says Larry Owen. "It's the kind of place where you don't have to lock your doors."

The campaign was the last thing on the minds yesterday of Eddie Williams, Dick Smith and Stan Kowalczyk. They were headed out to fish on Crescent Lake. "The bass are really biting," says Williams. Williams, a carpenter, and Kowalczyk, a firefighter, say they haven't focused on the election yet and won't until the leaves turn.

Smith, retired after 30 years in the military, says he's a lifelong Democrat who voted for Clinton in the primary, but will probably vote for Obama in November.

Whatever the political significance of today's event for the residents of Unity, it will pale compared to the town's Old Home Day set this year for July 26.

"They have a parade, fire trucks from several towns, a barbecue and a craft fair," says Baldwin, the principal. "That'll bring a few people out."

Bryan Mittner is one of the 1,715 residents of Unity, N.H. The town today will be the scene of the first public display of support by Hillary Rodham Clinton for Barack Obama since she suspended her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. AP / Jim Cole [email protected] / (401) 277-7321

Originally published by Scott MacKay, Journal Staff Writer.

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