In New Hampshire, Angry Republicans & Eager Candidates

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Dima Gavrysh for Time

The scene at the Barley House was tense. It was Friday afternoon in Concord, New Hampshire, and a Tea Party rally was winding down in front of the state house. Earlier, a small group of liberal activists had staged a counter-protest on the margins of the Tea Party event, and now three of them, wearing matching lime green shirts with slogans printed on them, had arrived for lunch at the restaurant across the street. Not everyone was glad to see them.

“Let’s take a collection for their lunch,” boomed a middle-aged man standing over the three women, who had sat down silently. “They want handouts, so let’s give them a handout!” Soon the man and his wife were demanding to be reseated and the manager was trying to make peace. (“This is a bipartisan restaurant!” she pleaded.) The couple eventually stormed out of the room. “Low-lifes is what you are,” the fuming man declared on his way out.

Welcome to New Hampshire, where conservatives are mad as hell and looking for a presidential candidate who can channel it–and beat Barack Obama in 2012. The Barley House brawl illustrated a fiery Republican attitude evident also in campaign events, talk radio rants and interviews with voters in southern New Hampshire over two days last week. The overall picture is one of a restless Republican base that sees defeating Obama as a matter of national survival. Angry conservatives believe Washington is spending the country into oblivion, and that lazy freeloaders are leeching federal money at the expense of ever more squeezed middle-class taxpayers. They also feel that the Washington game is rigged against them: “We’re constantly being lied to,” fumed Dan Dwyer of Nashua at a local GOP confab on Thursday night, still angry that Republicans had “caved” in their budget negotiations with Democrats earlier this month.

Yet Dwyer, like many other New Hampshire Republicans, says he’s still looking for a candidate. Polls may show former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as the current frontrunner. But plenty of Granite State Republicans are still shopping around. “I have some issues with Romney,” said Russell Cumbee, a Franconia resident who attended the Concord Tea Party rally in full colonial garb, complete with tricorner hat. Cumbee voted for Romney in the state’s 2008 primary, but sees him differently now in part because he feels the 2006 health care law Romney signed in Massachusetts has a whiff of “ObamaCare” to it. “This time I’m not as attracted to him,” Cumbee said.

Romney was a no-show at the Concord Tea Party rally, as were most of the other big-name candidates—with the exception of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who gets high marks from party insiders but barely registers in the polls. (“I know my name is not a household name,” Pawlenty said in Nashua gathering on Thursday night.) To remedy this, Pawlenty is trying to tap into activist anger with a stump speech loaded with snappy—some might say corny—zingers about Obama. For instance: “I am not going to question his birth certificate,” Pawlenty cracked, “but as I look at his policies, I wonder what planet he is from.” Or: “He’s proven that someone can deserve a Nobel Peace Prize less than Al Gore.” Pawlenty also riled up the Tea Party crowd by ticking off a list of broken Obama promises (including new deficit spending, a health care mandate and a failure to secure the border, among others), which he turned into a call-and-response routine that mocked Obama’s 2008 “Yes, We Can” slogan. (“Do you think that President Obama broke his promise?” Pawlenty called out. “Yes, he did!” the crowd replied.)

It was a crowd-pleasing performance, even if the 300 or so activists assembled seemed thirsty for even spicier rhetoric: Pawlenty was followed by the millionaire Godfather’s pizza founder Herman Cain, who took the stage in a fedora and sunglasses, and stole the show with a thundering stemwinder about the impending budgetary and moral destruction of America.

At this early stage, few voters seem to be talking about another potential candidate who was in the state last week: Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. During an appearance in a cramped, harshly-lit room at a Manchester electronics company, the drawling southerner was an odd fit in Yankee territory. “We’ve got something in common,” one voter joked to Barbour. “You’re from the Deep South. I’m from Southern New Hampshire, y’all!” Barbour did his best to prove his regional bona fides—he let it be known that he had grown up as a Boston Red Sox fan, and was even accompanied by his boyhood friend, former Red Sox catcher Jerry Moses.

But the small group of perhaps 35 voters who came to see Barbour clearly wondered about the implications of his Deep South heritage. During a Q&A session after his opening remarks, which focused on the damage Barbour says Democrats are doing to the economy, four different people raised the issues of race and civil rights.

One questioner asked Barbour how he planned to defuse criticism over comments he’s made seeming to downplay racism in Mississippi during the 1960s. (Liberals were distorting his words, he said.) Another asked for his views on the unsolved murder of Lewis Allen, a black civil rights activist in Mississippi that had been featured recently on “60 Minutes.” (Barbour said he’d never heard of Lewis Allen.) Someone asked his opinion about the Mississippi state flag, which contains an image of the Confederate flag. (A 2001 referendum, which preserved the flag, settled the question, Barbour answered.) And in an odd moment, a black New Hampshire Republican named Wayne Jennings took the floor to thank Barbour for including an African-American in his security detail. (Barbour noted that the bodyguard was a fine man and “a great tight end.”)

After Barbour had finished speaking, the man who’d asked about his comments on the civil rights era in his hometown said that he didn’t doubt Barbour’s integrity on race. But he was concerned that Democrats might use his southern heritage as an effective campaign weapon. “It’s going to be made a major issue by Democrats,” said Fred Plett of Goffstown, a local GOP county official. “So it’s got to be handled well.” Like so many GOP activists here, Plett has his eye squarely on the prize: beating Obama in 2012. Ultimately, that’s what matters most to New Hampshire’s charged up conservative activists. That, and a lunch table far away from any of those maddening handout-seeking liberals.