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NH's Leftward Turn May Change National Politics

By David Shribman

LEBANON, N.H. -- Good newspapers answer questions, but very good newspapers ask them, and the Valley News, which is published in the central area of the Connecticut River Valley hard by the Vermont border, is a very good newspaper. Last Sunday its editors asked an important question: "N.H. Moves to Left, but How Far?"

This is a question of some moment to New Hampshire, whose legislature, once as hidebound on the right as Albania's was on the left, just approved legislation to legalize civil unions and to hike the minimum wage.

But it is an even more urgent question for national politics, too, and not only because New Hampshire, which voted for Richard Nixon on a national ticket five times and went for George W. Bush in 2000, might be regarded as the elusive last blue piece in the northeastern section of the political jigsaw puzzle.

It is important, too, because next January, New Hampshire, which once offered a comfortable campaign setting for such conservative icons as Robert A. Taft (who came in second in 1952) and Patrick J. Buchanan (who came in second in 1992 and first in 1996), holds the first presidential primary of the political season.

For decades candidates campaigned in this state with iron assumptions. The Democrats here weren't quite liberals, at least openly. The prevailing culture was conservative, of the colorful but stubborn rusticated you-can't-get-there-from-here strain. The most important fact about people who lived in New Hampshire is that they hated taxes, the first love of liberals and Democrats. The second most important fact about people who lived in the Granite State is that they didn't live in Massachusetts, the seat of evil and liberalism in New England and the home of Harvard, too, which was no focus of envy.

Now New Hampshire has a Democratic governor, Democrats in both U.S. House seats, a Democratic majority in the Executive Council (someday I'll explain why that is important, and you still won't understand), and healthy majorities in the state Senate and House. New Hampshire voted for Bill Clinton twice and for John F. Kerry once. Had Ralph Nader, who was not New Hampshire's idea of a folk hero a generation ago, not run in 2000, New Hampshire would have been blue-tinged on Election Day, no one would have cared about chads in Florida, and Al Gore would have been the 43rd president of the United States.

So here is a question to match the one the Valley News asked last Sunday: How does all this affect the national political scene?

The short answer can be rendered in the two-word way you might have expected from Calvin Coolidge, who was from Vermont but whose taciturn style was strictly northern New England: a lot.

It means that here in New Hampshire, where you are now more likely to get a handmade latte in a coffeehouse than a homemade slice of apple pie in a diner, the governing assumptions of Democratic primary voters next January will be that the war in Iraq is a travesty, that the Bush tax cuts should be repealed, that the respect New Hampshire voters have always given to solemn national institutions like the presidency is a thing of the past (expect a fusillade of anti-Bush ads in the coming months, no holds barred), and that the wage and wealth gap between rich and poor will be a point of departure for debate and not a point of debate itself. The voters have made New Hampshire safe for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.

But not only safe. New Hampshire, which lured Michael Dukakis and many of his campaigning colleagues over the years ever so slightly to the right, now will nudge Ms. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards to the left. This will not be hard to do, given their natural inclinations.

Indeed, the national poll figures say the president is nobody's hero (or hardly anybody's) and the war is nobody's cause (besides, of course, Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona), but someone used to whisper to Democrats that they ought not to lurch left in the primaries for fear that they might have to do some awkward, damaging rightward maneuvers in the general election. Some years (though not in 1968, when Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota lost the primary but made his political breakthrough against President Lyndon B. Johnson) that someone used to be New Hampshire.

Not this time. New Hampshire has lost its distinction, which is a cultural shame and a national problem.

The cultural shame is that the state, once protected from foolishness by the White Mountains (and, farther south, by a lingering sense of remoteness), is more like the rest of the country than it used to be, which by any definition cannot be good. The national problem, for the Democrats this time, may be that New Hampshire won't offer a cautionary brake for the party and its potential nominee. (New Hampshire isn't alone in this. Iowa went Republican in 2004 but voted Democratic in the four previous presidential elections, giving the lie to the 1880s notion that Iowa will go Democratic when hell goes Methodist.)

New Hampshire's voters are classically, and, it turns out, literally, independent. Independents, in fact, now account for 44 percent of all registered voters in the state, which may turn out to be the most important statistic in national politics in 2008. Independents can vote in either Republican or Democratic primaries, and so a surge of anti-war, anti-Bush independents into the Democratic ballot columns next winter could throw immense uncertainty into all of the political calculations being made by the campaigns right now.

The result may very well be that the nomination process will be more warped than usual. This time the entire universe of voters in New Hampshire's Democratic primary may be more motivated, more passionate and more liberal than ever. All politics may be local, but in New Hampshire, all local politics are national.

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