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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2000 /28 Shevat, 5760

Tony Snow

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The New Hampshire primary: A boisterous fraud unique to the American political genotype -- MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The New Hampshire presidential primary has come and gone for this quadrennium, giving us an opportunity to take stock of a simple fact: The exercise is one of those great boisterous frauds unique to the American political genotype. It exists primarily to sustain the delusion that Granite State voters assert some vital influence over the course of global democracy.

Nothing qualifies the state for such an honor. It barely casts a shadow over the American scene. It generates less economic output than Austin, Texas. It has no particular claims to distinction. And demographically speaking, it is the whitest place this side of Sweden.

Nevertheless, it has become the one place on earth where the meek routinely get to mock the mighty. Election after election, politicians come to the Granite State to join in an orgy of self-abnegation. They troop into drafty gymnasiums and town halls, where citizens shuffle and stomp like expectant bulls. They swoop into diners and donut shops; canvass the snow-drifted streets of tiny hamlets; place anxious calls to editors of papers that have circulations smaller than the politician's traveling staff.

Mostly, they perform stunts to amuse the locals -- who transform themselves into vituperative churls every four years. Consider some highlights from this last go-round: Gary Bauer nearly lost his life tumbling from a riser while attempting to flip a pancake. George W. Bush had to cadge an endorsement from John Sununu, whom he fired eight years ago, when Sununu was President Bush's chief of staff. Sununu couldn't resist noting that he wouldn't have made the endorsement, except that Bush looked like he was losing the race.

Perhaps the cruelest twist is that the state's rules require politicians to court voters who don't even belong to their parties. Anybody can vote in any primary in New Hampshire. The result is a delicious chaos in which ambitious pols hurl themselves into crowds, pumping hands, grinning broadly, looking to impress -- and never knowing whether they are addressing friend or foe.

The New Hampshire primary typifies American culture in but one sense: It shows we retain a sense of humor. In what other nation do political careers blossom and die in a place as remote and rustic as this? Do Russians sort out their leaders in suburban Alma Ata? Do Brits require prime ministers to undergo body cavity searches in Thirsk? No: only in America.

Having said that, this year's New Hampshire contest did offer a few interesting insights into the cast of presidential pretenders. John McCain trounced George W. Bush because people considered him more of a mensch. While Bush conducted his version of a listening tour -- appearing in cinematically interesting events, where the public could watch and adore, but not fold, spindle and mutilate -- McCain threw himself into the mosh pit of Granite State politics.

He appeared at 114 town-hall meetings, in which he addressed all comers as "my friends." Voters ultimately judged him more courageous, authoritative, competent and caring than Bush, the self-described "compassionate conservative."

Biography trumped ideology. Even though McCain chattered on about reform, his centerpiece -- campaign-finance legislation -- didn't appear on anybody's list of priorities. Instead, folks liked McCain's life story, which is the most riveting of the lot. His years as a POW required measures of courage nobody else ever had to muster.

Similarly, Bill Bradley -- the former college and professional basketball star -- has a more interesting resume than Al Gore. Throughout much of the New Hampshire race, Bradley conducted gassy meetings in which he extolled the virtues of better living through metaphysics, and invited the exuberant black scholar Cornell West to deliver street-preacher addresses to speechless assemblages of rural caucasians. In the waning hours, however, Bradley showed gumption. He got mad and took to calling Al Gore a liar without ever using the actual word, "liar." This show of passion enabled him to pare Gore's lead by an astonishing 14 points in a week.

Al Gore and George W. Bush may have superior organizations around the nation, but McCain and Bradley have figured out a few things that in the end may sway the presidential contest in November.

First, character trumps everything. Weenies, lightweights and draft-dodgers need not apply this year. Second, independent voters matter. Jesse Ventura's election wasn't a fluke; it was a harbinger of discontent with the major parties. Third, young voters are going to show up -- and they will flock to perceived insurgents.

And finally, if you want to prevail in New Hampshire, study the behavior of trained seals, who clap and bark on command -- but in the end, get what they want.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate