Over a 24-hour period in New Hampshire I observed firsthand what modern "retail politics" looks like: a Gingrich sponsored Town Hall in Littleton, a Santorum sporting store walk-through in Jaffrey and a Ron Paul mega-rally in Nashua.
In the first two cases the majority of attendees seemed to be press, lending the events a surreal emptiness - a building full of reporters from around the world listening to a candidate speechify about his love for the Granite State. In Littleton, Gingrich appeared to be going through the motions, repeating his now oft-cited promise to challenge Obama to a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates with the identical cadence and language he was using a month ago in Iowa. He charged that Obama's campaign motto should be changed from "We can't wait" to "We can't wait...to shred the U.S. Constitution." But, tellingly, the crowd of supporters was small enough that he had enough time to individually speak with every one of them following the speech.
The press/supporter ratio was even more unbalanced at Pelletier's Sports Shop in Jaffrey, a hamlet in southwest New Hampshire, where Rick Santorum waded through a throng of reporters while talking gun rights.
"The Second Amendment is there to protect the first!" he asserted, trying to establish himself as the "values" candidate in the race. Yet, it was genuinely difficult to find an actual Santorum supporter amid the excitement. Even Charles Pelletier, the 64 year-old owner of the store hosting the event, told me that he was undecided.
Indecision was not a factor at the Ron Paul "welcome rally" yesterday in southern New Hampshire. About 650 people filled a hanger at the Nashua Airport. (One twitter follower, doubting my estimate, told me I "must have dropped a zero.") Paul was introduced by his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, and delivered a terse 15-minute speech to the enthusiastic crowd.
Demographically speaking, the crowd contrasted starkly to those with whom I'd spoken at the Gingrich and Santorum events. Entirely young and mostly white, they ranged from clean-cut young coastal types - one was wearing a Columbia University sweatshirt - to those presenting a more bohemian, vaguely hipster, anti-establishment vibe.
For his part, Paul didn't bowdlerize his libertarian message, instead highlighting many of the positions that distinguish him from his Republican counterparts. He avoided mentioning Obama by name, choosing instead to excoriate government in any form. His central leitmotifs were foreign policy - "Strong national defense, mind our own business, take care of ourselves!" - and a promise to repeal the Patriot Act, which generated one of the most forceful cheers from the crowd.
Few of the supporters I spoke to identified as Republican. Most preferred Independent or Libertarian, and the "anybody but Obama" mentality common to GOP voters was markedly absent. When I pressed attendees about whom they would vote for in a hypothetical general election between Romney and Obama, neither option seemed appealing, they replied.
Said one, after languishing for a moment: "Don't make me choose."
Will Kryder has been covering politics in Washington D.C. as a researcher since 2009, and is now on the campaign trail in New Hampshire as a citizen journalist. If you would like to contribute to our coverage of Elections 2012, please contact us at www.offthebus.org.