New Hampshire's Defender

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' David Miller talks with New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has the sole power to set the date of the crucial New Hampshire primary and has been an ardent defender of the primary's "first in the nation" status. This is an edited version of that conversation. Do you feel the wind of history at your back when it comes to defending the first-in-the-nation status that your state has?

Bill Gardner: Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "An ounce of history is worth a pound of logic." I can't imagine saying it any better than him. At what point did the criticism of Iowa and New Hampshire become really harsh? Has it been that way for awhile?

Bill Gardner: It's been that way for awhile. In October of 1983, Nancy Pelosi was made the chair of a [Democratic National Committee] committee called the Compliance and Review committee. She asked to come out and see me one day because she found out that we weren't going to have the primary on the day the DNC said we had to have it, and she was responsible for making sure the states complied. So she came up and said that we had to do this. This time, for me, it was very similar to what I went through in 1983. I mean, every cycle's a little bit different. What sort of system then would you advocate? What do you think is the ideal way of nominating our presidential candidates?

Bill Gardner: Well, we had a day in the spring of '96 where secretaries of state gathered. We'd never taken up this subject before because it was potentially too divisive and the association didn't want to have all the states fighting. At that point, there were a lot of op-ed pieces saying that it couldn't get any worse. But we thought '84 was bad and '88 was even worse. In '92 we didn't think it could get worse.

At that time everybody was saying that '96 was even worse. What we decided was that we would get a couple dozen people that were very knowledgeable involved for a long time in this process. We had campaign managers from both parties, campaign treasurers from both parties, campaign chairs, former chairs, reporters who have covered this process for a long time, and we asked them all to come in and we sat around and we got people from different campaigns so we would know what the treasurers go through, what the managers go through, and we listened for two days.

We said, "What would you do?" And that's when we came up with, eventually, over the next couple of years, protecting Iowa and New Hampshire but having a rotating regional primary. Now, there's a question whether that means during one month when all the states can go different days or whether they go the same day. It's not an easy question to answer because if it was, it would have been answered some time ago. But the Constitution is silent.

There have been over 100 bills introduced in the United States House and Senate in the 20th century, none of which passed because it's not easy, because when you pick some place, like this time when the DNC agreed that they would pick Nevada and South Carolina, they did it for a reason. [DNC Chairman Howard] Dean said Iowa and New Hampshire didn't represent the rest of the country and their value has to be diminished, and so we're going to pick a couple of states that, in their opinion, do.

Florida then says they not only have the population of minorities that the country has, but it has northerners and southerners. I mean, they were making the case for themselves, why they fit what Dean was trying to get. So they said, "Why shouldn't we do this when we're more diverse than Nevada and South Carolina combined?" For us it's a little different because we do have this tradition. We didn't ask for it, we weren't picked by anyone; the DNC didn't give this to us.

Why did it happen in New Hampshire? Why was New Hampshire the state to do this? For the same reason that New Hampshire was the state to have a primary when most states got rid of primaries: It's grassroots, personal participation. It's the culture here, politically, that is unique. The shortest distance between the people and the government exists in this state because so many people in this state are part of the government. California would have to have over 12,000 members of its House of Representatives to equal the kind of representation we just have in our House. It's a different political culture, much more personal and closer to the government.

A few primaries ago, I got a call from someone from CBS who said they wanted to come up and interview me for 60 Minutes, because they're doing a story on the end, the death of the New Hampshire primary. Because Steve Forbes was able to buy the state, and he was ahead in the polls and that showed the grassroots did not exist anymore. And I said, "If you want to do an interview that's up to you, but I would be very careful if that's your theme. Because right now, when someone spends the kind of money that he has spent on TV, and people are asked about him, they might say something favorable about him because he said something that made them feel good about him. But that does not mean that in the end they're going to vote for him."

But they did it, they produced it and, sure enough, just before it was going to air they had to throw it out because it was a story that was totally irrelevant at the time. So, every cycle there's something new, particularly with technology. With a population that is so engaged in politics, partisanship aside, what personal qualities in a candidate do you think really appeal to New Hampshire voters?

Bill Gardner: Well, I think, ideally, a person wants to feel good about the character of the person. I think, in the end, that's what's important. You'll get questions about this issue or that issue but in the real New Hampshire setting, it's more character and asking questions about the person. That's why the candidates that can connect [win].

Like when Gary Hart ran [in 1984], John Glenn had the resume to be president. Bob Kerrey from Nebraska had the resume to be president. But they couldn't connect here with the voters beyond the resume. And so, it didn't work. But there are examples like that, and then there are some that do connect. The John McCain of recent times ran a classic campaign. He didn't have the most money but he went out and he spoke and he did his town meetings and stayed until the last person who had a question was able to ask a question.