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Gateway to the Primary: Part 1

With just 22 days till the first in the nation primary, we're taking a look this week at some of the issues New Hampshire voters are weighing as they decide who gets their vote.

DANTE SCALA: There's a myth about New Hampshire, that's it's becoming increasingly Democratic, as people from Massachusetts move up here and make the state more liberal. That's a complete falsehood.

OAKES: Dante Scala is a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. He says the southern part of the granite state, from the Massachusetts border to the capital city of Concord, is a key area for candidates to target.

It's the most densely populated part of the state, with the largest communities. We traveled to one of them, Derry, to find out what people are looking for in a presidential candidate. Again, Dante Scala.

SCALA: Massachusetts residents who move up to New Hampshire in search of a lower cost of living, lower taxes, are moving into the southern tier, into places like Derry, and keeping the state as republican as it still is. And those are the folks who, they're not necessarily social conservatives, but they're fiscal conservatives, they're hawkish about American foreign policy, they might be attracted to a Rudy Giuliani. They might think well of Mitt Romney, because for them, hearing Mitt Romney talk about his fights with Massachusetts Democrats, they understand that very well.

OAKES: The main street of Derry looks like a small New England town, but it's the 4th largest community in the state: some 35,000 people call it home. In the middle of town, a meeting place for locals and political hopefuls just passing through, the retro fifties diner, "Mary Ann's."

On a recent cold and wintry morning, "Mary Ann's" fills up with folks sitting down to a late breakfast, or early lunch.

DINER, BOB: I'm still looking at the candidates to see what they're offering, and haven't made up my mind exactly what I want to do yet.

OAKES: Like many New Hampshire voters, Bob is still considering where the candidates stand on a variety of issues.

BOB: See what they're going to do about health care, the economy we've got some issues, as far as the war is concerned, I'd like to see everybody come home as soon as they can, but I know we can't just walk out and leave them there.

OAKES: The same issues come up frequently in Derry, the economy, health care, the war in Iraq...and one more thing:

DINER, KATHLEEN: I'm definitely for immigration control, border control.

OAKES: Kathleen speaks for a lot of Derry residents when she raises the issue of immigration, despite the fact that very few immigrants, legal or otherwise live in the town, or for that matter in the state. Kathleen voices another concern.

KATHLEEN: I'm looking for a strong candidate, who will stand ground, be decisive, be passionate.

OAKES: In a word it's character. Many of the diners at here set issues aside and talk about wanting a candidate who displays what they call character.

VOX FROM DINER: I want somebody who's going to think about this country and a united country not a divided country. We don't need all the politics, the Democrats, the Republicans fighting against each other, nobody's fighting for us, the people in the country.

NEW DINER VOICE: I think I'd like somebody that's an average Joe, stand up guy, a guy like a Harry Truman. Tell it like it is and be honest. Don't be a politician.

OAKES: Across the street from "Mary Ann's" I sit down with a local politician, Republican State Senator Bob Letourneau, in the town's economic development office. Letourneau has lived here for more than forty years, and is a Derry booster.

LETOURNEAU: I would say it's the littlest, biggest town in New Hampshire. It's a cultural center, it's an economic center, you know it's the gateway into the state.

OAKES: We ask Letourneau, what issues he thinks the presidential candidates need to address.

LETOURNEAU: What I'm hearing from people is the economy. We have this issue with the sub-prime mortgages, and the cost of fuel, and both of those are driving the economy down. People have less money to spend on other things. So the economy is going to be a major issue in this election.

OAKES: More so than the war?

LETOURNEAU: Oh yeah, you're not hearing so much about the war anymore. You see that the surge is working, and the news coming out of Iraq is positive every day.

OAKES: What about the issue of character?

LETOURNEAU: Character is important, if you don't have confidence in you leader, then you do not feel confident in any of the decision they make, so character is important.

OAKES: How do you weigh character? Is it something that you just can't weigh unless you meet that person and look them in the eye, and take a measure?

LETOURNEAU: Well that's an interesting concept, and you know the old saying that first impressions are lasting, is true. But people will take that and do more research, you know with the internet you can get bios on all these guys, and people in New Hampshire will do that, they take this very seriously, and they'll do their homework.

OAKES: New Hampshire State Senator Bob Letourneau.

Among the Derry residents doing they're homework, is Town Councilor Janet Fairbanks. She moved here more than 20 years ago, and has been on the town council for a year and a half...representing west Derry, a more working class, urban area than the wealthier suburban east Derry neighborhood. Fairbanks, who calls herself an independent, has been talking to her constituents about what they're looking for in a presidential candidate.

FAIRBANKS: They're main concern was the illegal immigrants who are coming into the country. Another big thing was health care. There are a lot of questions. I asked a constituent, "What are you looking for in a presidential candidate?" and one of them said to bring pride back to America. Progress is supposed to go forward and people are thinking that maybe for us, progress would be to go back to the way things were.

OAKES: You seem a little concerned about the general state of things. Maybe even a little angry.

FAIRBANKS: I don't know as if I'm angry. I think there's frustration. I think there's frustration for any politician who would like to do more for their community and can't.

OAKES: OK, now given that, what do you want in a presidential candidate?

LETOURNEAU: (Laughs) I want someone, who's going to listen to the America people. They have to understand that they represent the American people, like I have to understand that I represent a certain quadrant of Derry, and their voice is very important to me, above my own wants. And I think you're hard pressed to find a President, who remembers that. I think they get in there and they forget who put them there.

OAKES: Town Councilor Janet Fairbanks is one of about 19-hundred registered voters in Derry, who take what they believe to be their obligation to vote in the primary quite seriously.

This week we'll be listening to them discuss series of issues: the economy, immigration, health care and the war in Iraq.

For more information about Derry go to our website, WBUR.org. And tune in tomorrow, when we hear how the soft economy is figuring into the decision of who to vote for in the first in the nation primary. Our introduction to the town of Derry, New Hampshire was produced by WBUR's Mark Navin.

Tomorrow, our series "Gateway to the Primary" continues, with a a report on how the economy resonates as an issue among voters in Derry. This series is produced by WBUR's Mark Navin, with web elements created by WBUR's Jesse Costa and Margaret Evans.

This program aired on December 17, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.

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