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Politics Up Close and Almost Personal

Republican Candidates Participate In Final Debate Before NH Primary
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Republican Candidates Participate In Final Debate Before NH Primary

MANCHESTER, N. H. — Newt Gingrich has bright purple cheeks. Rick Santorum has a comb sticking out of his back pocket.

Jon Huntsman’s eyes are looking extremely red. Ron Paul’s son, Rand, the senator, is much shorter in person. And Mitt Romney, according to rope-line reports, has very soft hands — though probably not as big as the “enormous hands” of Mr. Santorum’s grandfather, whom the candidate invokes as a recurring parable (“Those hands dug freedom for me”).

This data emerged in recent days because the presidential campaign trail remains, for a few fleeting moments before Tuesday’s primary, up close and intimate — or intimate-ish. The candidate-consumer transaction remains sufficiently close-in so people can ask questions of the hopefuls and survey their mannerisms at varied events in drivable distances.

Early presidential voting has become a full-on amusement spectacle in America, where political hobbyists can buy T-shirts from licensed vendors and ask would-be presidents to hold a pose with them for several seconds while Grandma tries to figure out how to get this iPhone machine to take a picture (“Oh wait, that one didn’t come out either, Governor”).

It will not be like this again for a long time. After Tuesday, the campaign will enter the ether zone of media otherness, just another reality show where it will be next to impossible to approach Callista Gingrich and have her sign your copy of her children’s book, the one with Ellis the Elephant.

If campaigns are a feast, these last days before the New Hampshire primary are a smorgasbord of cotton candy, mixed nuts and red meat. What follows is a weekend sampling of the candidate’s offerings, beginning Friday and ending Sunday. (Rick Perry, who has not been campaigning in New Hampshire, is not included.)

The Paul Posse

Friday, 2 p.m., Hangar Rally for Representative Ron Paul of Texas, Nashua Airport, Nashua.

Before introducing candidate/Daddy Ron Paul at an airport rally, Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, addressed a matter on everyone’s minds: his own hair.

He told of how a woman back home had recently grabbed him by his stiffly tousled mane. When he asked her what she was doing, she replied, “I just wanted to check to see if it was a toupee or not.”

It’s not clear why young Mr. Paul told this story Friday in Nashua, though perhaps to reinforce the Ron Paul campaign’s message of authenticity (“Hair’s real, so’s Dad”). Whatever, the crowd loved it — as they love everything Paul, especially Daddy Ron, who moseyed out in a professorial gray blazer a few minutes later to echoing screams. Supporters waved blue “Ron Paul” placards, flags and “peace” signs (actual printed signs, not two fingers).

In an insistent drawl, Daddy Paul hits his big notes early. “All I can think about is how freedom is popular,” he said, admiring the typical Paul Posse mix of “Occupy” types, (both pro and anti-Paul) military veterans, self-taught historians, skateboard hipsters and graying peaceniks. Mr. Paul stands mostly still at the lectern while his themes swing from his performance in Iowa to the wisdom of silver as a currency.

He is the slightly doddering teacher who’s been around forever, meanders through the hour and yet holds the class rapt. He rails against “them” — whom he characterizes as “the people who want to run our lives, police the world and spend us into bankruptcy.”

By a big margin, the Paul Posse is the most devoted and passionate of any candidate crowd. They are less “supporters” than followers.

“I came even though I have a special-needs dog at home,” explains Jackie Casey, of Nashua. The special-needs dog — a Shar-Pei named Tori — is very old, over 100 in people years. Tori is almost blind, suffers from anxiety attacks and requires a great deal of care.

And yet Ms. Casey, a former Army reservist who now works at a Dunkin’ Donuts, would not have missed this. “Ron Paul is the only one running for president who has not lied,” she said. Not like the rest of “them.”

Big Mittens at the Table

Friday, 6 p.m., Mitt Romney Spaghetti Dinner, Tilton School, Tilton.

Mr. Romney can remind you of the dorky uncle at the Thanksgiving table — the one who excitedly delivers platitudes with a big wind-up, and then gets the platitude just ever-so-slightly wrong.

“As someone said a long time ago,” he told a Friday night crowd on the subject of how campaigns can get a little rough at times. “Politics ain’t beanbags.”

Not beanbag, either. Either way — beanbag or beanbags — politics is also a huge organizational undertaking, or juggernaut, as Mr. Romney’s campaign resembles here.

The Central Casting Candidate is killing in the polls. His family name is Romney-present: Romney signs are wall-to-wall, snaked along roads, and people come to events with Romney placards in both hands, leave with Romney yard signs and buy $5 Romney buttons on the way out.

Romney! Romney! Romney!

His empire on this night is the dining hall of the Tilton School, overflowing with the kinds of political life-forms that are typically drawn to candidates who glow with inevitability: national media, supportive elected officials and the familiar Republicans who were early supporters of past nominees like George Bush, Bob Dole and George W. Bush. Some have been supporting Mr. Romney’s campaign for six years.

“Here I am again,” said Tom Rath, a close Romney adviser and former state attorney general. Mr. Rath wears a stained and beat-up Romney baseball cap from the 2008 campaign — or perhaps from George Romney’s 1968 presidential campaign.

“It’s authentic looking,” Mr. Rath said of the cap. “We were accused of not being authentic last time.” (Rand Paul knows the feeling.)

Nikki R. Haley is here too, the It Girl governor of South Carolina, who is campaigning in the state for Mr. Romney (as is Chris Christie, the It Boy governor of New Jersey). “When we have a nominee, the whole country will wrap its arms around him,” Ms. Haley said.

Few here will wait that long. “Romney has the look of a winner,” said Vinnie Salerno, a New Jersey native whose family runs Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Concord. “We were voted best pizza in New Hampshire many times,” he said. (Is that like making the best maple syrup in New Jersey?)

His message: It’s all about Romney here. Or is it?

“If a candidate thinks this campaign is about them, they’re wrong,” Mr. Romney said in closing. “It’s about America.”

But for some reason, none of these signs say “America” on them.

Hunts-mania?

Saturday, 9 a.m., Town Hall Meeting of Jon M. Huntsman Jr., in North Haverhill.

Jon Huntsman is the unassuming cousin you might not think about outside of family gatherings (like debates). If Uncle Mitt exudes inevitability on the New Hampshire hustings, Cousin Jon projects evitability, whatever that means.

“I was the margin-of-error candidate,” said Mr. Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, who was speaking at a center for the elderly near the Vermont border. He is referring to his long run in the back of the pack in which seemingly all of his rivals have enjoyed a surge, if fleetingly. “I’m getting a stiff neck watching my competition going up and down in the polls,” said Mr. Huntsman, who has not had an up moment of his own.

Yet, Mr. Huntsman is still showing up — in third place in a new New Hampshire poll, he said Saturday. His voice is deep and measured except when it breaks into a high-voiced Andy Rooney-Jerry Seinfeld whine when expressing befuddlement (“Congress has an 8 percent approval rating, what’s THAT about?”).

He is fully cognizant of what might be the single biggest issue to New Hampshire voters every four years: the paramount importance of New Hampshire itself to the process.

On this front, Mr. Huntsman is on solid tundra: he has held 162 public events in the state.

“I’m developing a New Hampshire accent,” he said. And a taste for lobster rolls. And he even spoke dismissively of the Iowa caucuses. Amen, Cousin Jon. Heads in the crowd bobbed up and down.

Plenty of reporters and camerapeople fill in the back of the Huntsman room (in violation of an informal rule about covering the New Hampshire primary set forth by the legendary political columnist Jack Germond: Never travel too far north for a candidate who is at less than 20 percent in the polls).

After his speech and a few questions, Mr. Huntsman holds a quick session in a backyard area for about 20 members of the media, about half of them from foreign countries (another piece of the Huntsman base). He keeps his hands buried in the pockets of a bright red parka, smiles easily and steps before a microphone that does not work.

“This mike has no amplification,” Mr. Huntsman explained. “But I’ll stand here anyway.”

The Santorum Scrum

Saturday, 2 p.m., “Faith, Family and Freedom” Town Hall in Hollis.

Can you say “San-Torrent?” Ok, maybe you can’t — and maybe it’s a cheap pun on former Senator Rick Santorum’s name in an overreaching effort to convey that he seems to have a bit of fuss around him these days.

Mr. Santorum, who finished in a virtual tie for first place in Iowa, was hosting a town meeting in a red barn near the Massachusetts state line. It is just the kind of C-Span-ready setting for a rustic experience of New Hampshire retail politics. But the barn was filled well before the event was scheduled to start, and a few hundred people spilled out on both sides of the place. Vendors sold Santorum buttons arrayed on sandwich boards (one vendor reports 100 sales at $5 each in a half-hour).

When Mr. Santorum arrives, he is immediately surrounded — by iPhone photographers, autograph seekers, a few Occupiers and about 200 media types. The size of a scrum around a candidate is usually the mark of his momentum (or of a scandal, as scrum-veterans of the Gary Hart ’88 and Bill Clinton ’92 campaigns would attest).

Mr. Santorum emerges wearing a navy blue sweater vest. He is accompanied by his campaign manager, Mike Biundo, who is also wearing a navy blue sweater vest. Adorable!

The candidate leads the San-Torrent scrum in a slow-moving wave with periodic stops (to sign autographs) and changes of direction (“Senator, you’re leading us into a bush!” one cameraman cries out), until finally he takes a position on top of a large rock next to the barn.

“Rick,” one photographer implored before he started, “can you turn around so we have the barn in the background?” Mr. Santorum obliges, eventually. He accepts a few questions.

“Senator, can you talk about electability?” one reporter shouts out, just a split second louder and earlier than the others. The best answer to this question is usually glib (something like, “Electability — yes, I’m for it”). But Mr. Santorum takes several stem-winding minutes to explain all the ways in which he is electable — his electoral record in Pennsylvania, his ability to connect with working-class voters, etc.

Finally, Mr. Santorum disappears into the red barn and wonders aloud: How many people in the barn are actually registered to vote in New Hampshire? About 30 percent of the crowd raises their hands.

El Newto

Sunday, 2 p.m., Hispanic Town Hall Meeting, Manchester.

If it’s two days to the New Hampshire primary and you’re a long shot to begin with, it takes a candidate with a great sense of humor — or a really bad advance team — to schedule an event at a restaurant called Don Quijote.

But then, Newt Gingrich — quixotic or not — is running no conventional campaign. If he were, he would probably not be focusing his home-stretch attentions on Hispanic voters in El Estado del Granito — not exactly a rich trove of potential Republican voters.

Still, this is one bustling event for a Sunday afternoon with football on TV. Occupy protesters pound on the back windows and a drum. With the restaurant packed in like an overstuffed burrito, Mr. Gingrich put on the Full Newt for over an hour, discoursing on underground power lines in Sweden, the exorbitant price of heating oil and the ridiculous sum that Michael R. Bloomberg paid to have “basically bought the mayorship” of New York. Brand-name media abound: Bret Baier of Fox News and Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC are in the casa.

At one point, the pounding on the back window gets really loud. There is yelling; protesters try to force their way in. Where are the cops? The social fabric is fraying.

But Mr. Gingrich just keeps going: about how the conversation about contraception in Saturday’s night’s debate lasted 15 minutes and was “utterly, totally mindless.”

“We love you, Newt!” came a woman’s scream from the way back, and Mr. Gingrich stopped for a split second.

“This all gets quite exciting,” he said.

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