If Sarah Palin decides to run for president, she could quickly find that it’s not Arizona, but New Hampshire that poses the bigger threat to her candidacy.
That’s because in all of her travels since the 2008 election – during the midterm campaign and across two expansive book tours – the former Alaska governor has not once set foot in the first-in-the-nation primary state. And residents have noticed.
For all the attention to Palin’s large-scale image problems, from her much-criticized response to the recent shootings in Tucson, Ariz., to an unsteady media strategy, to sliding poll numbers, her seeming disconnect with the Granite State could represent an equally serious hole in any path to the GOP presidential nomination.
An early sign of Palin’s viability in New Hampshire could come this weekend when the 493 members of the Republican State Committee vote in a straw poll for the GOP’s presidential nomination. Several New Hampshire GOP politicos forecast that Palin’s absence from the state will catch up with her, with one predicting she would have “nothing going” and another saying they “wouldn’t be surprised if she is last.”
“In a state that puts a premium on personal contact, the question on Saturday will be whether — or how badly — that’s hurting her among the party faithful,” said one New Hampshire Republican who spoke candidly about the straw poll on the condition of anonymity. “Political celebrities tend to falter here — just ask George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani.”
But if Palin manages to post a respectable showing in the straw poll, it will almost certainly be a triumph of political celebrity over old-fashioned retail politics since Palin campaigned in a series of competitive races last year but bypassed those in New Hampshire.
Palin also visited more than 30 states to promote her books, but New Hampshire was not among them. Adding insult to injury, Palin has lavished attention on Iowa and South Carolina, two other early presidential states that compete for influence over the nominating process.
Palin visited both states to promote her books. Last May, she traveled to South Carolina to campaign for Gov. Nikki Haley in the Republican primary. In September, she headlined a major fundraising dinner in Des Moines for the Iowa Republican Party.
That’s a surprising snub for New Hampshire, where residents take immense pride in the role they play in screening national candidates. And it’s left New Hampshire Republicans wondering how Palin could have overlooked such an influential stop in presidential politics.
“People are talking about it,” said former Republican Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne, who lost to Sen. Kelly Ayotte — whom Palin endorsed — in a September primary. “Among the more widely speculated potential candidates, Gov. Palin is one of them who has not at all been in New Hampshire.”
Palin’s aides did not return requests for comment. However, her absence raises something of a worst-case scenario for New Hampshire Republicans: Palin could decide to run for president but look at the primary map and conclude that her prospects in more socially conservative Iowa and South Carolina are good enough that she can give New Hampshire only cursory treatment.
Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, sees New Hampshire’s omission from Palin’s schedule as a deliberate political choice and argues: “This isn’t by accident. … They’ve made a decision not to come to New Hampshire, and people have noticed.”
“Palin is almost being mocked, openly, by a lot of observers for the extent to which she has ignored New Hampshire and pretends it doesn’t exist,” Cullen said. “People crack jokes about it — political reporters, elected officials. Not just staff, not just activists.”
And Republican strategist Mike Dennehy, who advised Sen. John McCain in the state, said if Palin “doesn’t send out stronger signals in the state of New Hampshire soon — and by soon, I mean in the next couple months — I would say that’s an indication she doesn’t have an interest for running for president, or running for president in New Hampshire. I would say by April 1.”
While Palin hasn’t been a physical presence in New Hampshire, she left a mark on at least one race in 2010 when she backed Ayotte for retiring GOP Sen. Judd Gregg’s seat.
One Republican operative credited Palin with Ayotte’s narrow primary win over Lamontagne, crowing in September: “There was a time when the Union Leader [newspaper, which endorsed Lamontagne] played kingmaker here. But in this race, Sarah Palin was the queenmaker.”
Yet Palin’s endorsement was delivered via Facebook, and she never actually made a trip to campaign for Ayotte. The former state attorney general defeated Lamontagne’s underfunded campaign by less than a percentage point.
“New Hampshire is a grass-roots state,” Lamontagne said. “To the extent that Gov. Palin got involved in our primary, endorsed my opponent, she did it through social media, and it doesn’t really have the same impact that it would in another state.”
Many rank-and-file Republican voters appear to have a more patient attitude toward the former Alaska governor than the frustrated political class.
A Magellan Strategies automated poll taken earlier this month for the website NH Journal showed Palin in second place with 16 percent in New Hampshire, behind the very familiar Mitt Romney’s 39 percent. Nearly three-fifths of Republicans — 59 percent — had a favorable view of Palin, compared with 31 percent who had an unfavorable view. Half of independents, who can vote in New Hampshire GOP primaries, also viewed her favorably.
So if Palin does decide to run for president, there’s a big slice of the primary electorate that seems willing to give her a look.
One prominent conservative who might fall into that category is Union Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid, who said it’s “too early, other than for the insider, navel-gazing, thumb-sucking crowd” to read into Palin’s travel.
“If she wants to win, I think she’ll come to New Hampshire at some point,” McQuaid said. “If somebody was seriously contesting for the nomination and didn’t come to the first primary state, there would be grave questions about that person’s ability to win a general election.”
Given Palin’s star power, however, some fret that even if she doesn’t skip the state, she could put in a minimal amount of time and still clock a respectable finish that wouldn’t affect her odds at the nomination.
Indeed, McQuaid noted that in the early years of the New Hampshire primary, several widely known candidates succeeded without actually appearing in the state: Dwight Eisenhower won the first New Hampshire primary in 1952 with the help of New Hampshire’s governor, and later White House chief of staff Sherman Adams.
A dozen years later, former Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge won the primary as a write-in candidate while serving as ambassador to Vietnam.
New Hampshire operative Dave Carney suggested that just as many 2010 primaries unfolded differently than in previous years — with activist candidates toppling incumbent senators and congressmen — so might the 2012 presidential contest defy expectations about the way things are supposed to work in the early states.
“We love people to come to New Hampshire all the time. We love the attention. We love the support,” he said. “Are there other ways to win New Hampshire? There may be a dozen ways to win New Hampshire, but people haven’t demonstrated them yet.”
For the most part, however, New Hampshire’s primary has been a grueling, diner-by-diner, boots-on-the-ground contest that’s punished the more aloof class of candidates — such as then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who skipped an early candidate forum at Dartmouth and lost the primary in 2000 to the seemingly omnipresent New Hampshire campaigner John McCain.
“It’s really been more the exception than the rule, that somebody who didn’t spend time here is going to get the nomination,” McQuaid said. But “a high-profile person like Gov. Palin doesn’t need to come here that early.”
He added: “I’d love to meet the lady.”
First in nation, last with Palin
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