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Where the pols eat meat 'n' greet

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / February 4, 2007

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- If its first-in-the-nation primary status makes New Hampshire the hub of the political universe in a presidential election year, then for a brief moment less than 12 months from now, the center of that galaxy will probably be found here in a musty, downtown diner that is part Norman Rockwell, part Econo Lodge.

For decades, the Merrimack Restaurant has served up home cooking while hosting candidates seeking that regular-guy photo-op in the early stops along the road that leads to the White House.

Former US senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska once donned an apron and served coffee to the regulars. US Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who has run for vice president and, last cycle, for the presidential nomination, came to hold a "Cup of Joe with Joe" event. Bill Clinton, who dined here on primary day in 1992 before being declared "The Comeback Kid," always requests the same waitress .

"A candidate could walk in here and get a smorgasbord of 300 people," said Connie Farr , who owns the restaurant with her sister. "It's great. We've gotten to meet so many people. And you get a chance to see them beyond the political candidate. We sat with Bill Clinton and just shot the breeze.

"They're just like you and I," she added. "They're just under pressure more."

But now, just as the political season is starting to take shape, the future of this fixture for hand-pumping politicians is in flux. Farr, and her sister, Maria Saitas, who have spent a lifetime running restaurants, are hoping to sell the place and retire. They don't plan to leave anytime soon , but like the Granite State's embattled hold on the nation's first primary, the future of this nostalgic campaign stop is up in the air.

As soon as you pass the Merrimack's neon sign and open its glass doors, one thing is clear: They like Clinton here. There are 25 photos of the former president scattered about; a distant second is former US senator Gary Hart with four photos, followed by Al Gore , Clinton's vice president and the losing candidate in 2000, with two. Clinton earned his popularity; he stopped here frequently, and less than two weeks before leaving office he delivered a speech just outside the restaurant before coming in for a meal.

At the front of the restaurant, near the cash register, there is a framed $100 check from the 2000 Gore/ Lieberman campaign that went toward lunch for their motorcade drivers. There is also a framed pamphlet from 1991 , "A Call to Economic Arms: Forging a New American Mandate," signed by Paul Tsongas , the late US senator from Massachusetts.

One dining room is blue, with a flowered pattern on the floor and a circular blue booth in the corner usually reserved for the candidates. The other room is all red, with red booths and a red carpet pattern. Here "hons" and "sweeties" are dispensed liberally by the female wait staff as orders are written on notepads and checks are added up on large calculators in the back. The music comes from speakers tuned to an AM station. The smell of fried food will be with you for hours after you leave.

It is places like the Merrimack that have made New Hampshire famous for its retail politics, where its educated voters take a close personal look, shaking hands and asking direct questions. Local newspapers do articles on which candidates leave the best tips.

There are plenty of diners in the state -- from the Capital City Diner in Concord to Lindy's Diner in Keene -- but a mix of geography and atmosphere has made the Merrimack the culinary capital for presidential hopefuls.

"It has been a fixture for years," said William Upton , an antique s and fine arts appraiser from Concord and a regular at the restaurant. "And politicians know this is a lunchtime magnet."

The Merrimack attracts all types. On a recent Friday, some male diners sported ties and neatly combed hair while others were clearly from the scruffy, T-shirted camp. A group of lawyers was lunching there for the third time that week. Some people entered in wheelchairs, others had canes. The crowd was all-white, but then, the state is 96 percent white.

During election cycles, the restaurant also becomes a hub for the media, in part because of all the action, but also because the owners won't tell you to leave, even if it has been some time since you finished your eggplant parmesan.

CNN's "Crossfire" and "Inside Politics" have been frequent guests. Fox News has broadcast from the restaurant several times this year, including last weekend.

Ann Compton of ABC News walked away with a coffee mug, only to bring it back four years later. Tucker Carlson wrote in The Weekly Standard in 2000 that the restaurant was "your garden-variety New England diner (homey interior, mediocre food)."

"They just take over the restaurant, usually a year before the election. This year it seems like it's going to be two years," Farr told ABC News. "We've been here 25 years, and every four years, this place is not ours. It's the media's and the politicians'."

Farr and Saitas took over the restaurant in 1982 after running a smaller diner, where Jimmy Carter once made a stop in the 1970s.

The Merrimack started attracting politicians in 1983 when Hart, campaigning for the Democratic nomination, rented office space above the restaurant. Young staff members camped out downstairs and Hart frequently came in for breakfast and coffee.

In 1988, he ran again. Some of his staffers, now working on other campaigns, asked their bosses to make a stop at the restaurant.

The office space above the restaurant has also become legend, with underdogs -- which are popular in this state -- setting up camp there.

Kerrey rented it in 1992; Pat Buchanan was there in 1996 and 2000. This year, Republican John Cox , an unusually hopeful Chicago businessman, has set up camp.

The restaurant and four other units in the building are on the market with an asking price of $1.45 million. The sisters are not sure if the next owner will continue to operate the restaurant in the same manner, but the real estate listing notes that the space is "a nationally-known landmark on the Presidential Campaign trail."

Jane Davis has waited tables at the Merrimack for about 20 years and is a self-described political junkie. Clinton always requests that she get his table and they talk about everything from jazz to mystery novels. She wrote a local newspaper column in 1992 that said he was the best tipper of the primary bunch.

This year, she hasn't found the candidate who gives her goose bumps. Her responses to a sampling:

Mitt Romney : "He reminds me of 'The Music Man.' Slick salesman, going through the prairies with his snake oil."

John McCain : "I like him, but he's so behind the war, and I'm definitely not."

Hillary Clinton : "I like her, but for people in the South, she's the anti-Christ. I don't think she's electable."

Barack Obama : "I like him, but he's too inexperienced. A vice president, maybe."

John Edwards : "I do like him. He has good ideas."

Then, she interjects , "Man, Dennis Kucinich . I cannot believe Dennis Kucinich is in this."

Contact Matt Viser at maviser@globe.com.

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