Campaign Circus Reaches Fever Pitch in New Hampshire

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Bedford, New Hampshire

The Granite State had been worked to a fever pitch by Monday, as candidates made their final appeals before the long-anticipated primary. In the sleepy New Hampshire hills, the buildings overflowed. Crowds of reporters swallowed candidates and innocent bystanders alike. And the kooks and activists came out to play. Welcome to primary week in the center ring.

Ron Paul started his day Monday with an appearance at MoeJoe’s diner in Manchester, an unassuming, low-ceilinged joint that serves cran-apple pancakes and a platter called Big Joe’s Breakfast. Paul was there to mingle, but the place was stuffed wall-to-wall with reporters and supporters; he might as well have attempted one of his famous bike rides in Lake Winnipesaukee. His body men soon rushed the Texas congressman back into the black SUV from whence he came, out of what was determined to be an “unsafe” environment.

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Among the people who lingered in the parking lot was a devoted performance artist named Vermin Supreme—yes, that’s the name on his driver’s license. The perennial presidential candidate comes to New Hampshire every four years with a boot atop his head, a collection of neckties around his neck, and a platform of mandatory tooth-brushing and free ponies for all. After yelling at Paul through a megaphone, Supreme laid out his case: “Strong teeth for a strong America,” he said through yellowing chompers, while alleging that Paul was siphoning votes from his base of “malcontents.”

After MoeJoe’s, Paul traveled to a community center for a meeting with homeschoolers. Soon after he arrived, CNN’s Dana Bash questioned Paul’s ability to connect with voters by citing a woman who said she was turned off by Paul’s quick departure from the prior venue. Paul’s campaign manager immediately stopped the interview, telling the reporter she was holding Paul responsible for an incident that had been the media’s fault. Hushed bickering ensued until Paul’s petite wife, Carol, chimed in. A CNN cameraman had pushed her, she said, and told her to “get out of the way.” Bash apologized. All seemed embarrassed. “It was just a mob,” Benton later said.

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Meanwhile, Paul supporters showed up elsewhere on Monday, sometimes welcoming and sometimes antagonistic. Outside one of Rick Santorum’s events, they yelled “Rick Santorum hates gay people!” and “Google him!” At a Newt Gingrich town hall Monday afternoon, they quietly stood in a line outside the building, their giant banners adorned with peace signs.

Gingrich’s meeting in Hudson had been moved from a nearby American Legion hall to a much more spacious high school. Overflow crowds have followed all the candidates this week, and the cafeteria was standing-room only well before Gingrich took the stage. While people lined each wall and filled every aisle, a volunteer coordinator named Pam Smith recounted the week’s skirmishes with Occupy protesters. They had banged on windows and been taken away by police. “It was a little hairy there,” she said.

It was also a little hairy later that evening at a Mitt Romney event, when another crowd was treated to an Occupy protest at his rally in Bedford. Hundreds of people filed into a school through a gauntlet of Romney volunteers. They had signs and door-hangers and advertisements for sign-waving. One group of girls passing out stickers told attendees they would not be admitted to the rally without them (which, of course, wasn’t true).

Though it shared the scholastic backdrop, Romney’s event was much grander than Gingrich’s and on a whole different planet from Paul’s afternoon meet-n-greet. There were giant canvas-wrapped flags. Camera crews spanned the long back wall like a defensive line. Local policeman stood not only outside, but on stage to watch for suspicious happenings in the crowd. People waited for admittance after a one-in-one-out policy came into effect, like it was a hot Manhattan night club (without the hand stamp). “Once you’re out, you’re gone,” a security guard said.

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Even under careful watch, protesters broke through. “Live free or die! Always Occupy!” yelled people holding Romney signs that had been turned into Occupy placards. A white-haired Romney supporter tried to take one of the young activist’s signs; the crowd started chanting, “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” to counter the interrupters. Most of them were quickly forced to occupy the hallway outside the room. But Romney gave their cause his attention when a young woman with a “Get money out of politics” sign started a new round of yelling. He asked her to explain her grievances in a civil tone. Whispers of  “oh, no,” spread through the crowd.

Luckily for Romney, the protester’s response was essentially just the slogan on her sign. He countered that there was someone about to spend $1 billion on a political campaign (Obama) and he wasn’t a Republican. The eruption of approval for Romney’s counter-point drowned out the protester’s follow-up as she was taken from the room. Romney carried on as normal, and proceeded to recount his favorite verses from “America the Beautiful.” Because that’s what a candidate does the night before a primary at the height of silly season.

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