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Kevin Cullen

Big winners were voters

Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / January 10, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Watching the campaign and media machines decamp yesterday, banging a left onto Interstate 293 South, was like standing on a Route 6 overpass on Labor Day weekend, waving to all those loaded-down Volvo station wagons streaming off Cape Cod.

Goodbye.

Good luck.

And good riddance.

Brenda Keene didn't feel that way. She was exhausted, but she was sorry to see the circus leave town.

"Got out of here at 4 in the morning," she said, standing behind the bar at J.D.'s Tavern in the Radisson on Elm Street. "Back in to work lunch."

You may find this hard to believe, but journalists and political operatives drop a lot of cash at taverns. The tips were good, especially during the five days between the Iowa caucuses and Tuesday's primary. But Keene said it wasn't about the money.

"We're all used to the primary," Keene said. "This time was different. It was just so much - " She stopped, searching for the word. "Fun."

When's the last time you heard an ordinary person say that about politics?

On the televisions above Brenda Keene, the talking heads were explaining who the big winners were. It certainly wasn't the pundits and pollsters. They got it wrong. In fact, they got it so wrong that the undisputed winners of this ridiculously too long process were the voters and the process itself.

Having listened to so many for so long tell them what they should or would do, New Hampshire voters lustily demonstrated the independence that is in their DNA. These, after all, are the same folk who, more than two centuries ago, told the Brits to get lost almost a year before everybody in the 12 other colonies cottoned to the idea.

The people turned out in record numbers. The unseasonably warm weather helped. But it was more than that.

Carl Toepel is a retired school principal from Sheboygan, Wis. A lot of his neighbors follow the Packers. He follows American history. He came here last week, to see a presidential campaign up close.

"I met all of the candidates. In five days," he said. "That's how accessible everybody is."

This primary produced more candidates and more staged-for-media events than any previous one. But it also produced more participation, more interest than any previous one. We are at war. We're headed for recession, if not there already. Everything's up for grabs. They've got our attention.

So, after all this, the millions spent on advertising, some lunatic strapping a phony bomb to himself, Bill O'Reilly punking some Obama guy, what do we know?

We think we know that 36 years after Ed Muskie stood here outside the Union-Leader and tears, or snowflakes, sank his campaign, Hillary Clinton's showing of emotion saved hers. We probably know, as Mitt Romney does, that money won't buy you an election here, but will keep you in the race long after.

But, as the pollsters found out, you can only know so much by talking to people in New Hampshire. We'll never know how many wouldn't vote for Romney because they don't want his Lake Winnipesaukee getaway becoming the summer White House. And we'll never know how many people skewed those polls on purpose. Pollsters call it lying. New Hampshire people call it "mind your own business."

Yesterday, as Brenda Keene served a thin lunchtime crowd, the Bass tap sounded like one of the television pundits just 24 hours earlier, spitting air but nothing of substance.

"We're outta Bass!" Keene yelled, to some unseen co-worker in the back.

She leaned on the bar, glanced briefly at the talking heads above, and considered a future without politics 24/7.

"There's a hockey game tonight," she said, motioning outside toward the arena where the Monarchs play. "It's a different crowd. But it's a good crowd."

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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