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In swing-state New Hampshire, the diner debate is cordial

October 12, 2012|By Alana Semuels
  • The debate offered diner-going voters in Hollis, N.H., the opportunity to see the election as they wanted to see it, without changing many minds.
The debate offered diner-going voters in Hollis, N.H., the opportunity… (Alana Semuels / Los Angeles…)

HOLLIS, N.H. -- As might be a necessity in small towns like this one, which is at the beginning of what could be a very long winter, Republicans and Democrats sit down together over cups of coffee at the town’s two diners every morning and remain cordial, even when talking about politics.

But that doesn't mean the citizens sharing shelter from a rainy fall morning agreed on much the night after the vice presidential debate. The debate, like a Rorschach test, allowed voters in this popular campaign stop to see the election as they wanted to see it, without changing many minds.

Many Republicans said they thought Vice President Joe Biden was too rude and aggressive, while Democrats said they thought he performed well -- perhaps even better than President Obama did last week.

“I thought Joe Biden did a good job,” said Jerry Walsh, 73, a retired carpenter and Democrat sitting with a mixed group at the Hollis Country Kitchen.

“I thought Paul Ryan did a good job,” said Chip Harris, a Republican, sitting across from him. “But I shut it off because it reminded me of watching Fox News. It was an awful lot of bullying on Biden’s part.”

“Biden explained a lot of things Obama didn’t explain,” Walsh cut in.

TRANSCRIPT: Read Biden, Ryan’s arguments

Harris shrugged.

Harris did say he learned one thing from the debate -– he understood Democrats’ rationale for providing a set date for pulling out of Afghanistan, something he previously thought was just an invitation for enemies to attack. Biden laid out why a deadline was necessary he said; basically, a deadline would provide some motivation to the Afghan troops to train.

“I never understood that reasoning till last night,” he said.

Hollis has a quaint town center, a town hall built in 1746, a pharmacy and a white New England church. Though signs supporting Mitt Romney are perhaps more prevalent around town than Obama signs, Hollis is a town evenly divided. The town went for Obama over John McCain in 2008 by 61 votes (2,536 to 2,475).

It’s located in Hillsborough County, one of the swingier counties in New Hampshire, voting for Obama in 2008 by 7,642 votes, but supporting George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004 by 5,603 votes.

The evenness of the vote may explain why Tom Jeffrey, 65, a Democrat, and Fran Coulter, 66, a Republican, are such good friends: Befriending only people of the same party in Hollis will lose you half the town.

That doesn’t mean the two, breakfasting at the Market Place Diner, a few steps from the Country Kitchen, agreed on the debate.

“As a Republican, I didn’t think Biden’s smugness was a good thing,” Coulter said.

“But it was OK for Romney to do it last week?” Jeffrey interrupted.

PHOTOS: Mitt Romney’s past

He has an Obama campaign worker living in his basement. 

“Even if it played to a draw, we’re voting for president, not for vice president,” Coulter said, unswayed.

“I didn’t see any knockout punches, but I think it just throws the pressure back on Obama,” Jeffrey said.

Indeed, those who thought Biden was too aggressive tended to be Republicans. Democrats called him “feisty,” or, in the case of Chad Zingales, pushing a stroller through the town center, “passionate.”

“He did what Obama should have done,” he said.

PHOTOS: President Obama’s past

“Biden was really nauseating me,” said Mar-Mar Rogers, 61, a Republican, at breakfast with her husband, Mike.

“Ryan was maybe a tad too polite,” her husband added.

For New Hampshire residents, politics is a sporting event, and many people meet presidential candidates personally during campaigning for the state's first-in-the-nation primary. Romney, who has a house in Wolfeboro, 60 miles north of Hollis, won this year's primary decisively, but some people, like Mar-Mar and Mike Rogers, weren’t big fans (They wanted Herman Cain.)

Neither was Andy Bridge, an independent who said he knows he won’t vote for Obama, but that he might not vote for Romney either.

“I don’t think there’s much of a difference between the two candidates,” Bridge said. “Neither is going to balance the budget. And with both, we’ll have socialized medicine.”

But Romney’s hometown advantage might give him a small boost in this state, where polls have shown the race getting closer in the past weeks.

INTERACTIVE: Predict a winner in the battleground states

At least that’s the argument made by Vahrij Manoukian, owner of the Hollis Pharmacy and General Store.

Inside, there are photos of Manoukian posing with Romney, McCain, Rudolph W. Giuliani and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, all of whom have visited the store in campaign events. There are, oddly enough, also two green parrots in cages near the pharmacy.

“If Romney wins, New Hampshire will benefit,” Manoukian argued, citing examples of the popularity of Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bush family has a summer home, and Cape Cod, Mass., where the Kennedys vacationed. “He’ll put New Hampshire back on the map.”

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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