Dotty Lynch is CBSNews.com's Political Points columnist. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points
Psst, Howard Dean, the New Hampshire primary is happening. Now. As the Democrats continue to debate to 2008 calendar and threaten to add states up front to diminish the dominance of New Hampshire in the selection of a presidential candidate, New Hampshire activists are doing what they always do. "If they build it, they will come," is their motto. And since no other place has built it yet, the '08 wannabes are coming in droves. While this is considered to be McCain country on the Republican side, Senators Frist, Allen, Governors Romney and Huckabee and, of course Newt have all been in. On the Democratic side everyone but Hillary has been poking around although none have sprung for the voter files yet. And, even the coy New York Senator has covered her bets in the state; she went to Boston in to raise money, not for Massachusetts candidates but for New Hampshire Governor John Lynch.
The most recent to dip a toe into New Hampshire was former Virginia Governor Mark Warner who landed the hot slot as guest speaker at the big Democratic fundraiser, the 100 Club Dinner, held in Manchester on Friday night. Warner brought with him a five minute upbeat video produced by the firm of Greer Margolis, his media consultants who, in 2001, also produced a similar video for John Kerry last time around. The video and the glow of an 80 percent popularity rating in the red state of Virginia earned Warner some goodwill. "Better than expected" was the phrase used by many activists who are used to setting those expectations.
Democratic Chair Kathy Sullivan said that one of the best reasons to keep New Hampshire up front is that the activists know how to make those assessments and not jump too early. In conversations with many of the 100 Clubbers after Warner spoke, that sophistication showed through. New Hampshire Politics.com's James Pindall described the positive reaction as "wide but not deep." Others labeled it as upbeat but lacking in passion, but, nonetheless, a "good early effort."
While Warner talked about the need for a tough national security there was a glaring omission, that four letter word, "Iraq."
"There was not a single word about Iraq. Does he even know how many died last week?" asked longtime activist Dan Caligari. A pragmatic centrist countered that he couldn't talk about Iraq because he'd "get his head handed to him whichever way he talked about it."
Congressional candidate Peter Sullivan, a Democratic Leadership Council-type himself, said that he was impressed with Warner because he struck a lot of the same themes as former New Hampshire Republican Governor Craig Benson. But, "unlike Benson, Warner actually achieved a more efficient government in Virginia," Sullivan said.
Democratic Chair Kathy Sullivan said that what most voters really care about are issues closer to home — health care, education, prescription drugs and the environment — and that there is an anti-Washington sentiment sweeping through New Hampshire.
"The Republicans are vulnerable on those issues," said Sullivan. "What Democrats need to do is remind people that they are the ones who can do something on those concerns."
But the issue of Iraq is nagging the Democrats and dividing the base. The most frequent mantra of many liberal women about Hillary Clinton is "I love her but I don't think she can will any red states. And why the heck isn't she for pulling the troops out of Iraq?"
Many of these sophisticated New Hampshire Democrats are torn over Clinton. They like Hillary — the 800-pound gorilla in the room on Friday night many observed — and they pine for a return to the Clinton years.
But they say what they really want is any Democrat who can win the White House and Mark Warner reminds them of the two most recent Democratic success stories — Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — two Southern Governors who were actually a little younger than the boyish 51-year-old Warner who caught on in New Hampshire. Some suggest that all this monkeying around with the calendar is because the Hillary folks know that New Hampshire is often rough sledding for front-runners.
Warner listed keeping New Hampshire first in the nation in his laundry list of priorities for the country, in between abortion rights and the environment. It's unlikely that that will be in the list he presents in other states, but for now Democrats are paying homage to the tradition. In March Sen. John Kerry and Gov. Bill Richardson are expected to be back and at the Democratic state convention, in June Sens. Evan Bayh and Russ Feingold are slated to speak. That almost guarantees a debate over Iraq. Whatever happens eventually with the calendar, New Hampshire voters are still crucial in defining the issues and winnowing in and out the major players.