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With New Hampshire Voters, It's More the War Than the Economy

November 10, 2003|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

FRANKLIN, N.H. — Business is brisk at Cafe Louie on Central Street. The Wednesday franks-and-beans special is moving nicely at $4.95, and every one of the orange booths is taken.

Louis Matney, 22 and fresh out of college, opened the place in the spring, a risky venture while the nation is struggling through the worst job loss in terms of numbers since the Great Depression.

But the success he has seen is not unique in this tiny state, where the first presidential primary is about 11 weeks away; the sluggish economy that has battered places like Iowa, Michigan and Ohio has left New Hampshire only slightly bruised.

"I've never seen such loyalty from customers. The same people come back every day," Matney said, running out to deliver a salad.

Times are relatively good in New Hampshire. The unemployment rate is more than a point below the nation's -- even in Franklin, a blue-collar town that has struggled since the textile mills shut down 30 years ago.

Now it's the war that is making some New Hampshire voters nervous, so much so that the division could be seen at the table nearest the kitchen at Cafe Louie.

Brad Hinds, 36, owner of a plumbing and heating business, believes that the Iraq invasion was necessary and that Bush is on the right track. He'll vote for him again.

Not so the guy across the table. Jarrod Deyarmond, 30, who works for Hinds, believes he is financially better off than he was a year ago. But he is looking hard at the field of Democratic presidential candidates traipsing through the state.

Deyarmond is disturbed by the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the billions being spent there and the steady stream of bodies coming home. "I think we need a change, a different point of view," he said.

A president's approval rating is typically linked to the economy's performance. But despite the positive economic signs in New Hampshire, Bush's numbers in the state continue to slide. In a recent University of New Hampshire poll, 53% approved of his handling of foreign affairs, a 10-percentage-point decline since summer and the lowest since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Ambivalence about the situation in Iraq helps explain why former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who questioned the war from the start, has staked out a strong lead among the Democratic candidates in state polls. In just one sign of his popularity, he is drawing such large crowds to house parties that some people have had to park three blocks away.

"The war has become a wedge issue here because it symbolizes for Democrats everything they can't stand about American politics right now, and Howard Dean appeals to them because he can't stand it either," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at St. Anselm College in Manchester.

Bush has many supporters in New Hampshire, which he carried by one percentage point in 2000. Even though more than a third of the state's registered voters declare themselves independents, New Hampshire tilts Republican. All of its top elected officials are Republican, and the party holds sizable majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

But the postwar victory glow that pushed Bush's approval rating sky-high a few months ago is now a chin-to-chest resolve among backers who promise to stick by the president through the long haul.

"He told us it would be hard," said Karen Faris, 40, sitting with her husband over a Chinese dinner at the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester. "We feel things are going much better in Iraq, but that isn't always what is reported."

On one recent afternoon, the streets of downtown Manchester were soaked with rain and, over at the new sports center, the circus was in town. As if New Hampshire needed another one.

Although Bush is unchallenged for the GOP nomination, the Democratic field is a whopping nine -- and seven of them have been campaigning actively, their number swamping the state at times. (The state Democratic Party's recent annual bash drew record crowds, forcing a hotel manager to roll up his sleeves and help serve food.)

It is not unusual to bump into a would-be president at the local pizzeria or the supermarket. The airwaves are flooded nightly with ads, all of them implicitly or explicitly anti-Bush. That is one reason his faithful believe his overall approval rating has slid 15 percentage points here since the spring.

"Bush has taken close to $1 million of unanswered, negative, paid media," said Tom Rath, a longtime New Hampshire Republican strategist who has been close to the Bush family for years.

New Hampshire's 1.2 million population is roughly the size of San Diego's, but its political sway in the early part of every presidential campaign is huge. This year, whoever wins the Democratic primary on Jan. 27 will get a boost heading into a rapid series of primaries that follow.

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