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Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 2/3/2013

Presidential politics, frozen in place

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE EXECUTIVE EDITOR

BRETTON WOODS, N.H. — The other day, the midafternoon wind chill at the top of Mount Washington was minus 73 degrees, with winds of 61 miles per hour.

For two days, Wildcat Mountain, spiritual home of the toughest, most fearless skiers in New England, closed because of the cold. One newspaper warned that the exceptionally low temperatures could dangerously lower motorists’ tire pressure.

The whole state is frozen, physically and politically. The weather deep freeze soon will pass, although the snow atop Mount Washington, the enduring symbol of this state’s ruggedness and independence, won’t melt until July.

The political freeze will last longer, especially among Democrats. There will be no movement until two political figures make their intentions known.

One is Hillary Clinton, the consensus front-runner here if she decides to return to the state where her husband mounted an astonishing comeback in 1992 and where she defeated President Obama 16 years later.

The other is Vice President Joe Biden, who, though he would be almost 74 on Election Day 2016, is contemplating a third presidential campaign.

As a result, the silent season of presidential politics — when ambitious governors and senators make subterranean calls to area code 603 and quietly court activists, state lawmakers, and prominent politicos — has been put on ice.

The one exception, underlining the level of attention paid to small acts three years from the next New Hampshire primary: The entire political establishment is wondering whether there is any truth to the rumor that state Senate Democratic leader Sylvia Larsen recently received a handwritten note from Mrs. Clinton.

“Yes, I did,” she said in a telephone interview, confirming the scuttlebutt that preoccupies scores of people who live for such morsels and ruminate on what such a note might signal.

“Everybody is waiting to see what Hillary does,” said state Rep. Jim Demers, who counts himself as President Obama’s first New Hampshire supporter, carbon-dating his allegiance to December, 2006, when the Illinois senator came here on a book tour.

“She could keep the race on hold for at least six months or maybe even a year,” he said. “She has time to vacation, to rest up.”

Mr. Biden stirred speculation here when he invited scores of Democratic activists, many from New Hampshire, to his home at the Naval Observatory the night after he was sworn in for a second term to talk politics. He did not sound like a man planning to retire.

“You have two people with high profiles and long records, and so what they do is the first set of things that will be in play,” says Ned Helms, who was state co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s campaign the last two elections.

The result is a situation where the normal physics of politics is displaced by a cryogenic episode. This phenomenon — freezing the political class at the moment it is itching to get moving — is rare in American politics. It last occurred in 1992, when Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York struggled with whether to run right up to the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary.

Much of New Hampshire is waiting for some sign from New York, where Mrs. Clinton lives, or from the vice presidential mansion, where Mr. Biden is examining options and opportunities. If either, or both, send unmistakable signals that they plan to run, the presidential hopes of others may go into cold eclipse.

Then hardly anyone will care that Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, the most recent chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, worked hard to elect New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan. And hardly anyone will notice that Mr. Cuomo’s son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, has led New Hampshire Democrats not to expect any presidential maneuvering here until his re-election campaign is concluded a year from November.

Nor will it matter that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick campaigned for Mr. Obama in New Hampshire last fall, and seemed to connect with voters as he built a network of friends.

Absent Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Biden from the race, any of those figures could emerge. So could any number of relative unknowns. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota? Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York? Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana? Why not?

“Remember, Obama came from nowhere,” Senator Larsen said. “He was unknown — and there may be some unknowns this time. Americans like new things.”

Maybe they do. But there was no January thaw in New Hampshire this year. Everything is frozen in place.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at:dshribman@post-gazette.com



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