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GOP debate does little to cement Ashland voters’ choice

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / October 13, 2011

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One in a series of stories taking a look at the 2012 Republican race through the eyes of residents of Ashland, a bellwether town in New Hampshire.

ASHLAND, N.H. - Craig Moore’s choice for Republican nominee has fluctuated for weeks between two governors, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. But then came Herman Cain’s surge in the polls and bubbling talk about his “9-9-9’’ economic plan. And so, during Tuesday night’s debate between the Republican contenders, Moore listened carefully to the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive.

He liked the plan’s simplicity. And he wondered about that simplicity.

“If it’s that simple, then why aren’t others just doing it?’’ asked Moore, a safety manager at a printer manufacturing plant and father of two who lives on the same street he grew up on, overlooking the Squam River that powered the old mills here.

For Moore, along with four other Republican-leaning voters in Ashland, the debate did not cement a choice for Republican nominee. In this bellwether town, which has voted the way of the state in all but two primaries since the advent of the modern primary in 1952, the debate largely reinforced frustration with the Republican field and dissatisfaction with the candidates’ prescriptions for righting the economy.

“They are all talking about Obama and saying that we should get rid of him and then all our problems will be gone,’’ said Lisa Ash, co-owner of a hardware store on Main Street. “To me, they’re still not getting the American people. Their agenda is still not connecting.’’

Working class, with a population of 2,076, Ashland has an unemployment rate lower than the state and national averages, at 4.1 percent. But anxiety about keeping jobs and maintaining small businesses runs high. The ballooning deficit rankles many here in a fundamental way, disturbing a strong strain of Yankee thrift (which also fuels an astonishing number of yard sales).

For the five undecided voters, the economy-focused debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., 50 miles from here, came at the end of long work days - in a printer manufacturing plant, law school classroom, hardware store, insurance agency, and hair salon, when fatigue was gathering and the next day’s to-do’s were circling in minds.

At times, life interrupted. Sherry Norman, an insurance agent, cut short her husband’s birthday celebration to watch; Moore, a volunteer EMT, was 20 minutes into the debate when an emergency call came for a man struggling to breathe. (He watched the remainder yesterday on his computer.)

Some without cable television scrambled for a spot to watch the debate. Ash and her husband returned to their hardware store after dark to watch on the computer there after they could not get their laptop working at home.

Far from the punditry, the undecided voters gauged the performances by words - but also faces.

“I like it when they pan out and you can see everyone’s expression,’’ said Sherrie Downing, a 48-year-old hair salon owner. “That’s why I stand in the back of the selectmen’s meeting. A facial expression is more than words.’’

And what did she see in the faces?

“Perry had this smirk - I’m not sure if he smiles like that or what. But he kind of was just sitting there, like he was baffled.’’

Perry had been a person of intrigue going into the debate for many of the undecided Ashland voters. Mirroring national polls that have shown Perry’s support slipping fast, none of the Ashland undecideds came away a fan.

“I didn’t think Perry had real value to what he said,’’ Moore said. “He never really answered any of the hard questions.’’

Ash said, “He may be a very nice guy, but I’m always hesitant about people who tell me everything I want to hear.’’

Scott Whitaker, a 28-year-old University of New Hampshire first-year law student, said Perry had performed all right but reminded him “too much of G.W. Bush.’’

Like the political analysts, these Ashland voters tended to agree that Romney turned out the best performance and prevailed - though in debate only.

“He’s been endorsed by our friend in New Jersey,’’ said Norman, a 54-year-old insurance agent, referring to that state’s governor, Chris Christie. “He’s an upright guy. He’s interesting and qualified to do the job. He really understands what it’s like to be in business. He’s not one of these dreamers who’s never done anything - like Mr. Obama.’’

But some deep-down, amorphous sense left her uneasy about Romney.

“I really don’t know what it is,’’ said Norman, who still will consider Romney along with Cain, whom she praised for being “very direct.’’

Others offered more specific criticism of Romney.

Whitaker, recently returned from an Army National Guard deployment to Kuwait, said Romney had offered the best answers for fixing the economy. But he said Romney also “flip-flopped’’ on a crucial question about government bailouts.

“Romney managed to praise George W. Bush for coming up with the plan for the bailouts, slam President Obama for implementing the bailouts, state he would never bail out single institutions,’’ he said in an e-mail while running between classes. “My impression is that he approved of the bailouts when they occurred but is now trying to reconcile that fact against the negative American opinion for the bailouts.’’

Others said that the debate’s loudest voices left them the coldest. They wished they had heard more from Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator; Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota; and Newt Gingrich, the former US House speaker.

“Nobody is grabbing me and saying this is the person who has it all,’’ Ash said. “But then, maybe no one person can.’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@globe.com.