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Insider Interview: A Granite State Republican's Early Take on '08

Ask Tom Rath to describe the courting process between presidential candidates and New Hampshire voters and he begins to wax poetic.

"It is a real art form," Rath said. "It's...kind of mannered, almost elegant dance."

Rath should know. He has been involved in nearly every Republican presidential primary fight in the Granite State since 1964 when he worked for New York Sen. Nelson Rockefeller as a freshman at Dartmouth College. (Rockefeller and eventual nominee Barry Goldwater lost the primary to Henry Cabot Lodge, who ran as a write-in candidate.)

The presidential candidates Rath has supported over the years are a who's who of Republican power-brokers -- former Senate majority leaders Howard Baker (1984) and Bob Dole (1988), former President George H.W. Bush (1992), Sen. Lamar Alexander (1996 and 2000) and President George W. Bush (2004).

All of that experience in New Hampshire primary politics makes Rath, 60, one of the most sought-after operatives for Republicans mulling a 2008 presidential bid. Long famous for its emphasis on retail politics, New Hampshire requires a candidate have a steady hand at his (or her) side to navigate its coffee klatches and cold nights.

Rath said that the most important thing for a candidate making visits to his states now, two years ahead of the primary, is not the large public events; rather, it's the smaller, more informal gatherings aimed at building relationships. "You are trying to get someone to ride in the car with them between stops, have coffee with them, sit down in a hotel room," Rath said. "The person who is able to get people in the room are the coin of the realm up here."

The candidate best able to fill a room in New Hampshire at the moment, he said, is Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) who still retains considerable good will in the state from his 2000 upset over Bush. Much of McCain's New Hampshire campaign team is still intact, including Mike Dennehy who managed the Arizonan's campaign in the state in 2000.

Although Rath was on the wrong side of the McCain victory in 2000, he speaks highly of the Arizona senator who he refers to as "the president of New Hampshire."

Rath praised the way McCain has handled himself since losing the nomination race in 2000 -- citing the senator's support for the president ("You couldn't have put a dime between him and the president on major issues") and his continued courtship with the New Hampshire electorate ("He has been here enough but not too much").

But Rath warns that assuming McCain will win the 2008 New Hampshire primary without much of a fight is a mistake. "Having been through second runs you have got to be very careful to know 2008 is a different environment than 2000," said Rath. "The great mistake he would make strategically is to run the same race."

Who other than McCain will be a contender in New Hampshire? Rath is high on outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's potential, calling him the "buzz" candidate in the state. As governor of a neighboring state for the past four years, Romney is a familiar name to many New Hampshire voters (the Boston media market reaches much of the southern half of the state). Even before being elected governor, Romney was viewed positively by Granite State voters, according to Rath, for his work during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City; "the Olympics we watch the most," Rath added.

Rath named three other candidates -- Virginia Sen. George Allen, New York Gov. George Pataki and Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist -- as being active in the state, although nos have the organizations or support already enjoyed by McCain and Romney.

For much of 2005, Allen was viewed as the establishment favorite to knock off McCain but has watched his momentum slow this year because of the prospect of a serious reelection race this fall. Former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb (D) and former technology lobbyist Harris Miller (D) face off June 13 for the right to take on Allen in the fall.

"Allen has been a little bit hamstrung of late because where they thought there wasn't going to be a race there is one," said Rath.

Pataki, considered a longshot, has been extremely active in New Hampshire and is the only 2008 candidate to have hired staff in the state. To establish himself in the state, Pataki is using Meridian Communications, the firm that helped guide Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta's (R) win last November.

Frist had people in New Hampshire earlier in the month seeking commitments for the outgoing Senate majority leader, said Rath, who added that the Tennessee senator's operation has been more overt about his plans to run for president than staff for other potential Republicans visiting the Granite State.

Asked whether the 2008 cycle is shaping up differently than past New Hampshire primaries, Rath said the only noticeable change is how open the candidates have been about making their interest in a national bid clear. Rath chalks up that development to the fact that Bush will leave office with no heir apparent in 2008.

And New Hampshire is thrilled to be the primary (no pun intended) proving ground for presidential prospects; "We are a place to go when you've got that itch you immediately need to scratch," said Rath.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 10, 2006; 8:37 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Insider Interview , Republican Party  
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