TOPICS > Politics

Battle in New Hampshire

November 25, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Millionaire John Forbes Kerry has the resume, the ambition and even the initials — JFK — to become president. But first, the senator from Massachusetts has to dish up the chili in New Hampshire.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Does it get better than this? It doesn’t get better than this, does it? Let me tell you, I’ve done this before. You going to eat this before your hockey game?

GWEN IFILL: Kerry is in campaign overdrive. Once heavily favored to win the nation’s first primary, he has now been eclipsed in recent polls by another New England neighbor, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. So he’s racing around tiny New Hampshire, from mountains to seacoast, by plane and motor coach, in an attempt to regain lost footing, literally getting in voters’ faces … and emphasizing his warrior credentials as a Vietnam veteran who later turned against the war, and as a senator who voted to go to war in Iraq, but now says it was a mistake.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: George Bush thought he could play dress-up on an aircraft carrier and stand in front of a sign that said mission accomplished. And he thought that we wouldn’t notice that he didn’t have a plan for peace. He thought we won’t notice that on farms and in factories and in small towns all across America, people are losing their jobs. He thought we wouldn’t notice the numbers of people who have lost health care, so we’re here in this firehouse tonight and we’re going to be gathered all across this state in these next months to make it clear George W. Bush is leading this country in a radically wrong direction!

GWEN IFILL: In recent weeks, Kerry’s campaign message has been overshadowed by internal campaign strife. Four senior campaign workers have been fired or quit in the last few weeks.

So Kerry is now out reintroducing himself to fellow New Englanders — his new campaign slogan, “the real deal,” geared to win the affections of voters he admits should have been familiar with his accomplishments long ago.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: As a senator I stood up against Ronald Reagan’s illegal clandestine war in Central America. I stood up against Noriega, and drugs, and the CIA. I blew the whistle on Oliver North and his private aid network. I led the fight with John McCain to get answers for our families that we couldn’t get from the government for 20 years. And we got those answers. And I’m proud that I stood up against Newt Gingrich’s efforts to gut the Clean Air and Clean Water Act.

GWEN IFILL: Winning votes in New Hampshire is a handshake-by-handshake process. And sometimes, supporters are a candidate’s toughest critics.

Well, Kerry’s your guy, but he’s way behind in the polls. What would you recommend that he do to close that gap?

ELIAS ABELSON: I guess what he has to do is what he’s doing, which is reaching more people, and reaching them in a way that permits the warmth of his personality and the sincerity of the positions that he takes to come through. And again, I don’t know how you do that, how you reach all these people without television.

GWEN IFILL: And you don’t think he’s that good on television?

ELIAS ABELSON: I think he comes across in a rather stilted fashion.

GWEN IFILL: Have you listened to any of the other candidates?

ANNA DOLAN: Yes I have. I’ve been to see Senator Edwards; I’ve seen Howard Dean. I’ve been around. I’ve been watching and listening. I think I’d go Kerry in a second. I want him to give that little punch. You know, give a little zip to his talk. He is tonight very good. ‘Cause I heard him another night and he was very good, but I left and I said to my friend, Leah, he better give a little zip in his talk because I think that’s very important. I think it kind of wakes the people up.

GWEN IFILL: What is your biggest surprise about all this?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: The intensity, probably.

GWEN IFILL: Kerry admits to some frustration that, after more than two decades in office, just across the state line he still has to make a first impression in New Hampshire.

You’re from a neighboring state. Presumably the voters have a passing clue who you are. Why is it that you have to reintroduce yourself?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: You know, they actually don’t. It’s stunning to me — somebody came to me and said the polling results said half the people in the state didn’t know I was a veteran. The penetration is not what you think it is. Television is a very quick moving medium today, and you do have to always reintroduce yourself. And I think the war months of June and July were obviously very polarizing and very difficult. Look, I need to make sure people remember who I really am and know who I am.

SPOKESMAN: The next president of the United States, Dr. Howard Dean.

GWEN IFILL: Everybody seems to know Howard Dean. His lead in the polls has soared into the double digits. But Dean warns his enthusiastic supporters, many of them aligned with the two big unions who have endorsed him, against overconfidence.

HOWARD DEAN: First we have to win the New Hampshire primary. I know we have a nice lead in the polls and all that. Do not believe the polls. There is only one poll that counts and that is the one on Jan. 27. We need your help. We are going to run as if we are behind by 20 points.

GWEN IFILL: Dean was crossing the border from his home in Burlington, Vt., to campaign in New Hampshire long before other candidates even decided to run, bashing corporate greed and snagging normally apathetic young voters.

HOWARD DEAN: Half a trillion dollars in budget deficits. Borrow and spend, borrow and spend. This is the credit card presidency. We just charged another $87 billion on the credit card to send to Iraq. You have to pay for that. I’m too old to have to pay for that. Your generation is going to pay that $87 billion back. Half a trillion dollars of borrowing year after year after year. We can’t afford that. Not one Republican president has balanced the budget in 34 years in this country. If you want to trust your hard-earned money to the federal government, you better hire a Democrat because you can’t trust the Republicans with your money. (Applause)

GWEN IFILL: Driving this message home in New Hampshire, Dean has attracted a potent combination of new Democratic voters and new money. Mora McNeil voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. She likes Dean this time.

MORA McNEIL: There’s a sense of hope. When I was listening to him, I felt he could possibly turn things around. We’re living in frightening times I think right now and we need somebody to lift us up and I think he might be able to do that.

MARK OSWALD: Governor Dean has the passion. When I’ve seen him before it has almost been a Baptist revival type of experience. So he’s very impassioned about his belief, about his cause.

GWEN IFILL: Here in New Hampshire, the old political formulas don’t necessarily apply. Polls can be unreliable. Voters are anything but apathetic. And name recognition only gets you so far. While a stumble here might not kill a campaign outright, a win can keep one alive for weeks, months, even to the conventions.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: All right. Thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: Gen. Wesley Clark, who got a late start, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, are both aware that neither George W. Bush nor Bill Clinton won New Hampshire. For them, surviving New Hampshire means beating the expectations game, using television to try to break through.

AD SPOKESMAN: Something’s happening.

SPOKESWOMAN: An ethical leader.

SPOKESMAN: McCain supporters are backing Joe Lieberman.

SPOKESWOMAN: They’re both straight talkers.

SPOKESWOMAN: Both John McCain and Joe Lieberman vote their own conscience.

SPOKESMAN: They both get past the party ideology…

GWEN IFILL: It’s no accident that Lieberman links himself to his Senate colleague McCain. It was McCain after all who came from behind to defeat President Bush here four years ago.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Yesterday I was endorsed, as you may have seen, in the New Hampshire media, by more than 40 granite staters, mostly independent or as they say here undeclared voters, who supported John McCain in 2000. And it meant a lot to me because these folks, here’s a couple of them right here, said that they believe that the fight they started with John McCain could best be continued by supporting Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary this year in New Hampshire. (Applause) But I really appreciate what they did in supporting me and their commitment to work for me because of what McCain represents and it’s exactly what I’ve tried to represent: That you do what’s right, even if it’s not politically easy. Ultimately, we’ve got to unite our country. We’ve got to put petty politics aside. We’ve got to put America first. Together, that’s what we can do in this campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Clark, his campaign only eight weeks old, is trying to counter Kerry’s military credentials with his own.

AD SPOKESMAN: In the Falkans, he helped negotiate a peace between bitter enemies and led a multinational force that stopped a campaign of terror, liberated a people and brought peace without the loss of a single American soldier.

SPOKESMAN: Anyone wishing to go in there and listen to the general, you’re all welcome.

GWEN IFILL: Visiting veterans around the state, he emphasizes his stance against the war in Iraq, a popular sentiment among primary-voting Democrats here.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: We need to regain a new spirit of patriotism in this country. It needs to be a patriotism that builds on the American flag but is more than that. It’s about protecting the essence of who we are and what we are as a democracy. And that means Americans all over standing up and speaking out and offering their views, whether the government agrees with them or not. We may be in a time of war, but we are in a country that’s a democracy. And that means we have to have dialogue and disagreement and dissent, and no administration can say that just because you disagree with it, you’re somehow unpatriotic. It just isn’t so. So I’m running not to bash George Bush, but to replace him.

GWEN IFILL: One on one, he seems bemused by the fractious nature of presidential politics.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: It’s everything you ever see in books that you read or on television or in movies. You meet a lot of people. There’s a lot of give and take. There’s a lot of backroom deals, this guy and that woman and so forth. It’s politics.

GWEN IFILL: I’m curious about whether voters in New Hampshire, when they look at you, and they’re a pretty independent minded group of people here in New Hampshire, what are they going to see in you and what you tell them when you talk to them one on one that’s going to make them think, I like this guy better than the other ones.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: You’ve got to ask the voters on that. But I’ll tell you what they’re telling me.

GWEN IFILL: Tell me.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: They tell me they like my experience. They like the fact that I stood up to the Pentagon and did something that was right even though it cost me for doing that, and that’s the war in Kosovo where we saved a million and a half Albanians from ethnic cleansing. And they like the fact that I’ve got a broad diverse background. I can talk about health care. I can talk about education. I can talk about retirement. I can talk about spouse abuse, child abuse, suicide prevention, all of the other social programs that were so near and dear to my heart when I was an officer in the United States Army. And I can also talk about the world arena and how America responds to threats from abroad and how we should keep ourselves safe at home.

GWEN IFILL: The Bush campaign weighed in on the Democrats’ war criticism last week, in the form of this ad paid for by the Republican National Committee.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH (ADVERTISEMENT): Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?

GWEN IFILL: Within 24 hours, Kerry responded.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, we don’t need commercials. We need a commander in chief who leads America to a better place. I know something about aircraft carriers for real. And let me tell you, if George Bush wants to fight this election on the issue of national security, I’ve got three words for him that he does understand. Bring it on.

GWEN IFILL: Kerry’s new plan: To convince voters he is every bit the scrapper Howard Dean is.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I’m a fighter and I’m going to fight for every vote I can find over the course of the next two months.

GWEN IFILL: You haven’t been fighting up until now?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I think it has been very cloudy because you had Arnold in California, you had summertime, you had the latest new face in the race. People really haven’t begun to focus yet. Now they’re going to focus. And I’m confident this is the time to be clear, to be precise, and to show the intensity American people want to see in a president. I’m talking about fights because people right now know this is a fight.

GWEN IFILL: That fight comes to a head during the next frantic 60 days.

CHRIS WEBB: Dean, Dean — I saw him, he was in Hampton.

GWEN IFILL: What did you think?

CHRIS WEBB: I think it’s going to be a tough, close call.

GWEN IFILL: Really? For you or just altogether?

CHRIS WEBB: For me. I’m a registered Democrat and it is going to be down to the wire. Have to wait for the last moment.

GWEN IFILL: As skeptical, critical, hyper-interested New Hampshire voters, proud of their reputation as political kingmakers, finally make up their minds.