Campaigns Spin Straw Poll in New Hampshire

By Jerry Miller | July 7, 2008 | 8:24 PM EDT

Hookset, NH ( - Republican Party activists paid $2 a head for the chance to down hot dogs, hamburgers and other delicacies Saturday night, as they watched C-SPAN's live coverage of the Iowa Straw Poll at the local American Legion post and contemplated its impact on this state's presidential primary next February.

When the results were announced shortly after 10 p.m. EDT, representatives of several of the campaigns did their best to spin, what in some cases were truly disappointing results, into virtual victories.

But for supporters of conservative activist Gary Bauer, no spin was needed. "We're absolutely delighted. Fourth place is what we were shooting for," said Richard Lessner, the former editorial page editor of the Manchester Union Leader, this state's largest newspaper and now a senior consultant to the Bauer campaign. "Fourth place is what we were expecting. Some people had hoped we'd finish in the third spot, but it was really a long shot to beat Elizabeth Dole."

Lessner said Bauer's strong Iowa finish was all the more satisfying since first and second place finishers, Texas Governor George W. Bush and publisher Steve Forbes spent more than two million dollars combined, according to estimates.

"The results will give us a terrific bump in New Hampshire," said Lessner. "Gary Bauer finished first among the so-called social issue conservatives, in only his first try for the office. People in this state will notice he beat out Pat Buchanan, who won this primary four years ago and came close to winning it in 1992. He also beat a former vice president, who has 98 percent name recognition, something Gary doesn't have. And he finished well ahead of Alan Keyes."

"This is one more step toward Bauer establishing himself as the conservative alternative to Bush or someone else. We've taken a big step toward making that happen," Lessner added.

Bauer's relatively strong showing in Iowa also caught the attention of New Hampshire's GOP establishment. "I'm not surprised at his Iowa showing. He had a good grassroots organization," said New Hampshire Republican State Chairman Steve Duprey. "He's also worked hard in New Hampshire and has a good organization here as well. His Iowa showing will probably enhance what he already has going for him here."

Bush forces in New England were also pleased. "The straw poll shows Governor Bush can compete very well. He turned out a lot of people," said Joel Maiola, a former top staffer to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), who serves as Bush's primary point man in New Hampshire. "As for New Hampshire, this keeps the momentum going."

"It was a very impressive win," said Duprey of Bush's Iowa victory. "It gives him more momentum in New Hampshire."

Jesse Devitte, New Hampshire chairman of the Dole for President Exploratory Committee, told, "We're thrilled with the Iowa results. She was outspent 10 to one," by Bush and Forbes.

"In terms of New Hampshire, this strong third place showing will bring new interest to our campaign. I believe this will allow us to continue to move ahead, slowly, quietly and carefully. I also see us mounting a more aggressive campaign here," Devitte added.

"It was a solid third place finish. She has to now spend more time in New Hampshire and beef up her state organization. I think she knows that," Duprey said.

While Buchanan staffers didn't attend the event, one activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, told, "Pat is in trouble. The fire seems to be gone and all this talk of jumping to the Reform Party didn't help him in Iowa and will likely hurt him in New Hampshire. We just had (Senator) Bob Smith (I-NH) bolt the party and a lot of us are very angry about that. If Pat doesn't put the rumors to rest, he'll encounter growing hostility here. Someone close to him needs to let him know that."

If he were advising Buchanan, Duprey said, he would tell the former columnist and television host, "It's time to come to New Hampshire."

The state party chair added an early endorsement by the Union Leader, which endorsed Buchanan in 1992 and '96, may be increasingly critical to the candidate's effort here. "Having an early endorsement from the Union Leader sets a candidate apart from other conservatives."

For Lamar Alexander, who spent more time in Iowa than any other Republican aspirant and who had the endorsement of former Governor Terry Branstead, the results were especially disheartening. Several Alexander supporters were visibly upset at their candidate's sixth place finish.

However, New Hampshire campaign spokesman Rich Cockrell worked overtime to put the best possible face on what most in attendance saw as a dismal result. "A sixth place finish is strong. We will capitalize on it in New Hampshire. This is an early test of organization. We were outspent more than 10 to 1 by Bush and Forbes. Our supporters in New Hampshire are ready to go to work. There is a long time to go before the New Hampshire primary."

Cockrell's comments were made before Alexander appeared on national television Sunday to announce that he would "reconsider my candidacy."

Republican National Committee Member and long time Granite State office holder Ruth Griffin said she hopes the Iowa poll will be the start of an effort to unify the party.

Speaking about so-called "second tier" candidates, who did poorly in Iowa, Griffin told, "The Bush people have begun romancing Republicans who have made commitments to other candidates. If they join Bush, it will be evidence of a united Republican Party."

Griffin, a strong Bush supporter added, "The Iowa results should be a signal to supporters of some other candidates that it's time to roll up the banners and look for someone else to support." Griffin left little doubt she hoped that support would go to the Texas governor.