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Insider Interview: The Union Leader's John DiStaso

Today marks the unveiling of The Fix's weekly insider interview feature, a conversation with key behind-the-scenes players in the national political arena.

The interviews will run every Monday morning on The Fix. We'll interview top consultants from both parties, key staffers in the states and influential reporters in hopes of giving The Fix's readers some unique insights into the people influencing politics both in the states and nationally. 

If you have suggestions for Insiders you'd like to see profiled by The Fix, post them in the comments section below or e-mail me.

This Week's Interview -- The Union Leader's John DiStaso

John DiStaso wasn't born in New Hampshire, but he's become an institution in the Granite State nonetheless.

DiStaso writes the "Granite Status" column for the New Hampshire Union-Leader, a must-read for aspiring national candidates (and their staffs) and members of the national media. DiStaso is a encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, which he has been covering for more than two decades, and no serious candidate for the White House swings through the state without making sure to get in touch with him.

In other words, if something happens politically in New Hampshire, John DiStaso knows about it -- usually first.

DiStaso is flattered by talk of his influence in the presidential process but is matter-of-fact about his role. "I realize that if I were anywhere else I wouldn't be in your blog, I wouldn't be in ABC's "The Note" or The Hotline [subscription required]," DiStaso told The Fix in an interview last week. "I don't look at myself as anything more than a political reporter from a midsize newspaper in New Hampshire, which happens to have the first primary."

A native of New Jersey, DiStaso and his wife moved to New Hampshire in September 1979 when he landed a job as a stringer for the Union-Leader covering the state's Seacoast. In 1980 DiStaso moved to Manchester and in 1982 started co-writing "Granite Status." He started flying solo on the column in the mid-1980s.

Looking back on the column's early days (it was originally subtitled "A Political Potpourri"), DiStaso said he aimed to make it "more than just announcements" about politics. "I tried to get the jump on the other papers around here. I always tried to keep it more than rumor."

DiStaso said the column has matured and includes more analysis now -- though he is careful to note that he works hard to keep his own opinions out out of his copy. "I pride myself on being able to get as much news about one party as another," DiStaso said.

That's not to say DiStaso doesn't have thoughts on the 2008 presidential race and his state's fight to preserve the first-in-the-nation primary.

DiStaso's early handicapping on the 2008 field is based primarily on which of the potential candidates either has an organization already in place or can build one.  He said Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain has the "makings of an organization waiting to take off." As evidence, he notes that Mike Dennehy, McCain's New Hampshire campaign manager in 2000, and Republican Executive Councilor Peter Spaulding are both on board for a McCain 2008 bid.

DiStaso said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) looks likely to be sound organizationally in the state, and Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) has the backing of some business leaders, including BAE Systems VP Richard Ashooh, who has hosted several fundraisers for Allen.

Among Democrats, DiStaso said that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the "frontrunner."  He said former President Bill Clinton is still "amazingly popular" in the state and noted that a number of political operatives who helped make Clinton the comeback kid in 1992 are ready for an HRC candidacy.

Aside from Clinton, only Virginia Gov. Mark Warner has made any real impression in the state, said DiStaso. Warner will be back in New Hampshire on Feb. 10.

As for the the ongoing controversy over whether New Hampshire will maintain its first-in-the-nation primary in 2008, DiStaso called the early vote a "part of the culture" in the Granite State, "especially now that the Old Man of the Mountain has fallen." He added that the presidential primary "keeps people in the state...closer to their government and their politics."

Asked to recount his favorite memory from the many primaries he's covered, DiStaso is momentarily stumped before a flood of reminisces about politicians past comes to him.

The "most vivid" memory? "Being in the room when [Washington Post political reporter] Paul Taylor asked Gary Hart whether he had ever committed adultery." Taylor's question during the early 1988 primary season (and Hart's response: "I don't have to answer that question.") set in motion the Colorado Senator's departure from the race as well as the emergence of candidates' personal lives as fair game for reporters' inquiries.

Another DiStaso primary memory centers on Pat Buchanan's 1996 campaign. Buchanan was doing at an event at a saw mill, which was packed with people. It was so crowded, in fact, that one of the attendees was nearly pushed into a saw -- though disaster was narrowly averted. "I always found him to be extraordinarily entertaining," DiStaso said of Buchanan.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 9, 2006; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Insider Interview  
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Next: Boehner vs. Blunt: Round 1 of GOP Leadership Race


John DiStaso almost single-handedly uncovered and pushed forward the story of the 2002 NH phone-jamming scandal. (The Executive Director of NH Republicans hired telemarketers to jam Democrats', and firefighters', get-out-the-vote for a tight federal election.) The Justice Department has moved at a glacial pace. The Republican National Committee is paying huge legal bills for conspirator James Tobin, who was beavering away as head of Bush-Cheney 2004 for all New England when DiStaso's revelations forced him to step down. Amazing this scandal went below the national radar. Kudos to DiStaso for fine reporting on it!

Posted by: Betsy Devine | January 15, 2006 5:59 PM | Report abuse

About both parties of Congress being down in the polls, that maybe all well in true, but as a History teacher I need only state 'let us revisit history.' Remember the Contract with America that catapulted the Republican party into the majority. Time and time again, history has shown that when scandal breaks out in the halls of Congress, it is the majority party that reaps the dire consquences. And with Jack Abramoff being a conservative Republican lobbyist, the double edge sword seems poised to inflict its lethal blow. History in 2006 will show that that once again largesse brought down the majority.

Posted by: Tino Cuervo | January 11, 2006 12:14 PM | Report abuse

How about reviving exPresident Jimmy Carter.
We owe him a second term.
And I see no one else speaking for the real Democrats.

Posted by: Bill Ellis | January 10, 2006 6:27 AM | Report abuse

What about Evan Bayh in NH? I watched his speech in October on CSPAN, I was very impressed!

Posted by: NH- Bayh | January 9, 2006 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Jon DiStaso is also one heck of a baseball coach and manager. His only downside.....He's a Yankee Fan!

Posted by: L. Joy | January 9, 2006 1:55 PM | Report abuse

This is awesome. John DiStaso should write a book.

Chris, you keep coming up with great new ideas for The Fix. It started off as a top-tier blog, and you've only gotten better. Thanks!!

Posted by: Terry | January 9, 2006 11:53 AM | Report abuse

How about adding Brad Martin to your Insider Interview list. Brad is the former longtime ED of the Montana Democratic Party and an architect of the Democratic resurgence in Big Sky Country. He is now Northwest Political Director for the DNC and the point man on the Dems rural strategy for 06 and 08.

Posted by: Matt L. Barron | January 9, 2006 9:02 AM | Report abuse

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