NORTH CONWAY, N.H. Just how many presidential candidates can you shove into one tiny state?
New Hampshire crowded in eight candidates in 1972 (nine, if you count the comedian Pat Paulsen, who got 1,211 votes). There were 10 in 1976 (when President Gerald Ford defeated Gov. Ronald Reagan by 1,587 votes). Last time around, in 2004, seven Democrats campaigned in New Hampshire (President Bush had no significant opposition in his renomination bid that year).
So how many candidates can the 1.4 million residents of New Hampshire expect to see in the next couple of months?
The answer defies political logic and is explicable only in the language of astrophysics. The Hubble telescope helped scientists discover that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The same thing can be said of the universe of presidential candidates in 2008.
Every day someone else joins the lists. The autumn Congressional Quarterly calculated that 26 people were actively campaigning for president or contemplating doing so. The magazine left out a few but is probably within the margin of error.
In the end, of course, there probably won t be 26 candidates for president, though this still could be a Bruce Springsteen election (26 candidates and no one to vote for). And even if Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican crusading against immigration, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who has emerged as a protector of the defense budget, do run, they have about as much a chance of becoming president as Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland (3,104 votes in New Hampshire in 2004).
The smart money is almost always wrong, but right now the S.M. is on former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts in the Republican contest, and on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the Democratic contest. (That s a lot of smart money, but there is going to be a lot of money sloshing around the 2008 campaign.)
The Republican campaign seems to be opening more quickly, with Mr. Romney and Mr. McCain rolling out endorsements with great rapidity. The Democratic race has hardly begun, though the starting line sure is crowded. Neither Ms. Clinton nor Mr. Obama has appeared in the state, leaving many Democratic politicians and activists in suspended animation, notwithstanding the great efforts of former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina to shake them up.
The Clinton campaign is more an idea than a reality right now, but Mr. Obama, who is to visit New Hampshire today, is beginning to make calls around the state, including one to James Demers, who 20 years ago was a Democratic congressional nominee who failed to win a House seat. The two men held what Mr. Demers described as a nice casual conversation that wasn t as intense as some of the other candidates. In a politics-crazed state this kind of tidbit sometimes actually can pass for news.
Each presidential campaign cycle has a narrative, but at this distance from actual voting it is impossible to guess even the kind of narrative it will be. Iraq will be an issue, to be sure, but the economy might not. An overhaul of Social Security is needed, but you won t hear much about that in the union halls, community centers, and veterans hospitals. That requires the prose of governing, as former Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, who almost ran 16 years ago but didn t, might put it, and New Hampshire primaries are for the poetry of campaigning.
But this is an election with a difference. Most times there is at least one presumptive nominee, a president seeking re-election (President Bush in 2004) or a vice president trying to move into the White House (Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Al Gore in 2000). This time there is none. Mr. Bush can t run for a third term, and Vice President Cheney has disavowed any interest in running for president.
The result is a wide open race. No one can swoop into the old Pease Air Force Base near Portsmouth in Air Force One or Air Force Two, as George H.W. Bush did as vice president and as president. But the absence of an established office holder makes it impossible for an insurgent, like Pat Buchanan, to build an entire campaign around resentment (his favorite target: Bush 41).
It also makes it harder to run for president as an agent of change, given that all 26 presumptive candidates are technically agents of change. Former Gov. Reagan built his entire 1980 nomination campaign on opposition to President Jimmy Carter, who had built his entire 1976 nomination campaign as an alternative to the Nixon-Ford administration.
The result will be politics without foils. Some Republicans might be pilloried as stalking horses for the Bush administration on Iraq, but by this time next year there may be fewer such ponies than there are now. It s a safe bet that no one will run on the Bush record. That could be liberating for Republicans, who saw how difficult it was for Mr. Humphrey to run in 1968 as a member of President Johnson s administration.
So this will be a hard campaign, hard because it will be hard-fought, but hard too because it will be hard to fight. It will require ingenuity and nimbleness. It will require new ideas: no one will run on the old ones, so many of which have been discredited. And it will require stamina. The Iowa precinct caucuses aren t until Jan. 14, 2008, and the New Hampshire Primary isn t until Jan. 22, 2008.
Just specimens is all New Hampshire has, one of the premier students of the state said in 1923, one each of everything as in a showcase. Robert Frost is known for understatement, which especially can be appreciated in a year with 26 presidential candidates.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org