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New Hampshire voters warn GOP candidates against taking Granite State for granted

The walls of the Roundabout Diner illustrate the many candidates who have sat at the countertop to share a meal with potential voters over the years in Portsmouth, N.H. on Monday.
Franco Ordoñez
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NPR
The walls of the Roundabout Diner illustrate the many candidates who have sat at the countertop to share a meal with potential voters over the years in Portsmouth, N.H. on Monday.

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Former President Donald Trump made a rare visit to New Hampshire this week.

He hasn't been to the crucial primary state very often – only a handful of times - and generally avoids the retail politics that put candidates through the political wringer.

But other Republicans, like Nikki Haley, have notched dozens of visits - and it shows as she jumps to second in the polls – though still far behind Trump.

"It doesn't feel like a typical New Hampshire primary," said Craig Jewett, who owns a commercial construction company. "It does feel a little different."

The 54-year-old native of New Hampshire remembers meeting George Bush as a kid and helping his father campaign for Ronald Reagan.

At that time, he said anyone in New Hampshire could meet any presidential candidate without trying too hard.

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He's having breakfast at the Roundabout Diner in Portsmouth with his high school sweetheart, Pamela Harrington, who he reconnected with 30 years later.

She also thinks things are changing. They both worry something special is being lost.

"I think with times of technology, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, I think people really appreciate and forget how much they appreciate meeting a candidate face to face, shaking his or her hand and answering a question directly with great eye contact," said Harrington, a 52-year-old former school teacher.

Jewett nods along.

"The old school notion of having somebody like Nikki Haley in your kitchen or Tim Scott in your kitchen or Vivek [Ramaswamy], whoever is the candidate, those days may be dwindling in my mind," he said.

Craig Jewett and Pamela Harrington say "old-school" retail politics is the way to win the hearts and minds of New Hampshire voters. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Oct. 9, 2023
Franco Ordoñez / NPR
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NPR
Craig Jewett and Pamela Harrington say "old-school" retail politics is the way to win the hearts and minds of New Hampshire voters. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Oct. 9, 2023

Those days are dwindling. And it's raising uncomfortable questions about the upcoming election.

In small state primaries, like New Hampshire's, voters get to go out and kick the tires, per se, before everyone else.

That system is now under threat, said Ryan Williams, who worked for Mitt Romney on his 2012 presidential campaign.

"It's obvious to anybody these days that the primary now is fought on cable news, Twitter, social media and the Internet versus in VFW halls in Salem, N.H., and Davenport, Iowa," Williams said.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Wolfeboro, N.H., on Oct. 9, 2023.
Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Wolfeboro, N.H., on Oct. 9, 2023.

At his rally in nearby Wolfeboro, Trump touted his large lead over the Republican field. And he suggested he didn't need to come.

"In fact, somebody said, you don't have to come to New Hampshire, sir. You're leading by 44 points. You don't have to come. I said, 'no way.' "

New Hampshire is seen by many Republican strategists as, perhaps, the last best chance to disrupt the trajectory of the primaries.

The Granite State is considered to have a more diverse group of Republican voters than Iowa, for example. But the state also has an open primary that will allow independents and Democrats to cast ballots.

"New Hampshire is a reminder that we don't do this nomination process nationally, that the undeclared voters, the Republican voters in New Hampshire have a chance to say, we're going to take a look at all these other candidates," said Jon McHenry, a national GOP pollster from New Hampshire.

"So we're going to sort of put them through their paces and see which one we really want to be the standard bearer for our party rather than just Donald Trump holding a few rallies and rolling to a nomination again," McHenry added.

The walls of the Roundabout Diner document the array of candidates who have sat at the countertop to share a meal with potential voters over the years. They include Trump, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Those eating breakfast at the diner are very protective of that tradition.

The Roundabout Diner in Portsmouth, N.H., has been a popular place for presidential candidates to stop by to share a meal with potential voters.
Franco Ordoñez / NPR
/
NPR
The Roundabout Diner in Portsmouth, N.H., has been a popular place for presidential candidates to stop by to share a meal with potential voters.

At a booth near the kitchen, Wendy McGillis, a former Navy cryptographer, warns candidates against taking the state for granted.

She brings up how Hillary Clinton never visited Wisconsin in her 2016 campaign and ended up losing the state.

"She didn't go out there and put her face out there, McGillis said. "She just assumed, erroneously, that she was going to win. You can't do that. You can't assume."

Her daughter, Kristen Richard, also prefers the traditional way of meeting candidates face-to-face.

But the 40-year-old program manager said it's not realistic to expect Trump to follow those same traditions when he's already been president - and is already a household name.

"He is around," she said. "He is doing interviews. Just on his own terms."

As she scoops her whipped cream with a bite of French toast, Harrington says Trump has left a door open for his rivals, who have been doing the retail politics of a traditional primary campaign.

"That's why Nikki [Haley] is making some nice gains, because she is doing that," Harrington said. "She's taking the time to come."

Jewett adds: "She's kind of won us over."

But he's been at this long while and says, there's still time for someone else to come to New Hampshire and change their minds.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.