MANCHESTER, N.H. — I remember first standing downtown on Elm Street here in 1976, when, as a college student in Massachusetts, I came up to cover part Ronald Reagan’s challenge to President Ford in the New Hampshire primary.
Manchester was a much sleepier city in those days. The downtown was not as built up, even though it still rolls up pretty early most nights. The primary is different too. With few exceptions, the candidates simply did not spend as much time here as in primaries past. The bulk of the familiar retail campaigning — the rallies, the diner surfing — has taken place in the last few weeks. It’s been a bit of disappointment to many longtime New Hampshire primary-ites.
In 1976, Reagan campaigned a lot here, believing he could topple the incumbent Ford if he won. But Reagan lost, in a New Hampshire squeaker.
Like 1976, the focus now is on how close Romney’s second place finisher comes, whether its Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul or any of the others. And will Romney come out strong or weak? But, you don’t have to go quite that far back for guidance and context.
Not counting Romney in 2008, three major Massachusetts political figures have run here in the last 24 years. Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis won New Hampshire in 1988 by 16 points over Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry beat Howard Dean by 12. Both wins were hailed as big victories. So it seems those who say Romney’s margin must be 20 points to have a huge win — and many who say that are Democrats — are ignoring New Hampshire primary history.
On the other hand, in 1992, Sen. Paul Tsongas, from Lowell, beat Bill Clinton. The margin was just eight points, close enough for Clinton to be declared the Comeback Kid, go on to win the nomination, and the White House.
So in this primary we find out if Mitt Romney, the latest Massachusetts neighbor to play politics in the New Hampshire backyard, is the 2012 version of Dukakis and Kerry, with a win, or Tsongas, with a win that’s a loss.
I’m reasonably sure Romney, under fire by his opponents for being from Massachusetts, doesn’t like any of those comparisons.