Presidential Campaigning in Exeter, N.H.

We begin a monthly series on voters in the New Hampshire town of Exeter. Their state's primary is the first in the nation, and New Hampshire voters of both parties are wrestling with their choices. New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Jon Greenberg talks to Liane Hansen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The nation's first presidential primary takes place in New Hampshire on January 22, 2008. There are many ways to report on it: follow the candidates and hear what they say, look at the money they are raising, perhaps truth squad the campaign ads. Well, one of our colleagues at New Hampshire Public Radio is trying a different tact.

Jon Greenberg has decided to focus on one town: Exeter. Between now and the primary, he'll be questioning voters about the candidates and about their own concerns. And he'll be reporting his results on this program.

Jon Greenberg joins us now. Welcome, Jon.

JON GREENBERG: Glad to be here.

HANSEN: Why did you pick Exeter?

GREENBERG: Well, you know, it's a pretty typical New Hampshire, New England place. It's got this picturesque historic downtown and a not-so-picturesque strip mall a little further out of town where people really do their shopping. And, you know, when I was talking to a lot of political operatives, they pointed me towards Exeter because they said it's a small place that the candidates never overlook. It's got about 10,000 voters and they're equally divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents. And it's got a lot of people who are very interested in the primary and really like to grill the candidates. So it seemed like an interesting place.

HANSEN: What are voters telling you now?

GREENBERG: They were all very much talking about the Iraq War. That's kind of got the greatest gravitational pull. For Republicans, immigration is a very hot issue. Let's say also for Republicans, they are really looking for someone who can clarify what it means to be Republican. They feel like there's been a certain amount of drift. For Democrats, you hear people talking about getting a fresh start. They are looking for someone who can really put the country on a new path.

HANSEN: You know, the primary is not until January, quite a ways to go. How - I mean, how intense is the interest really?

GREENBERG: Well, you know, a lot of people are kind of sitting back and waiting for the field to sort itself out. But there's a decent chunk of people who are very, very interested. You know, I went with this one couple, Neil Kimble(ph) and Barbara Santora(ph). They're husband and wife and they were going to this Barack Obama event at the University of New Hampshire.

Neil's father knows Obama, and Neil's one of the few people I've met in Exeter who are really committed. He likes Obama. Barbara's leaning towards Hillary Clinton. So they're driving around looking for a place to park and Neil starts to get into it with Barbara.

Mr. NEIL KIMBLE (Democratic Voter): I'd be excited to have a female president, too, but she's so wired in. She's so politics as usual. Doesn't it concern you at all?

Ms. BARBARA SANTORA (Democratic Voter): Yeah, I think it does concern me and especially the politics as usual, and the idea of having Bush-Clinton, Bush-Clinton...

Mr. KIMBLE: Yeah.

Ms. SANTORA: Absolutely.

Mr. KIMBLE: It's also late Roman republic. I mean, it's scary.

Ms. SANTORA: But at the same time, I still think...

HANSEN: All right that's the Democratic couple. Are there similar discussions going on with Republicans?

GREENBERG: Absolutely, and also between husbands and wife. I went with a couple to go hear John McCain at the Exeter Town Hall. The wife, Holly Tisdale(ph) was this big McCain fan in 2000; husband, Phillip(ph) wasn't. We're sitting in the living room afterwards and we're talking about Iraq. Now, Holly and Phillip have two sons in the military and this is not an academic discussion. Holly really felt good about McCain and his support for increasing American forces in Iraq. Phillip can accept that, too, but he has this need to be brutally honest about what that means.

Mr. PHILLIP TISDALE (Republican Voter): There's no winning. We're just there forever. That's all. Will you live with that? Alex is going - a year from now, Alex is going.

Ms. HOLLY TISDALE (Republican Voter): Yes.

Mr. TISDALE: Since a year ahead of Alex, know they're going to be in Baghdad by Christmas. That's okay with you?

Ms. TISDALE: No, but I trust...

Mr. TISDALE: So what are you going to do then?

Ms. TISDALE: Well, I personally can't do anything. I have to pick a leader that I think will do something.

HANSEN: Well, are either Phillip and Holly totally on board with Senator McCain?

GREENBERG: Holly more than Phillip. But even that's conditional. I mean, she really wants a Republican to win. And if, for example, say Mitt Romney starts looking like the leader, she might switch over to him. She told me that.

HANSEN: You know, millions of people won't have the kind of opportunity that New Hampshire voters have. You know, to meet the candidates face to face, to invite them into their homes. You're going to report on this program about once a month on what you're discovering about Exeter and the people who live there. At this point, though, what do you hope to learn?

GREENBERG: There's this real disconnect now between the rhythm at the national level and the rhythm in Exeter. Because at the national level, you've got these frontrunners who are trying to gain this unassailable lead. They're, sort of, like trying to rack up a chip advantage in poker. But then, Exeter voters really are trying to stick towards their way of doing things. They want to meet the candidates, they want to ask them detailed questions and get these detailed answers.

And I suppose what I want to see is whether they learn something new, and whether that begins to shape their opinions in way that allowed them that might take someone who's back in the pack - like a Mike Huckabee or a Bill Richardson - and elevate them towards a higher status.

HANSEN: Jon Greenberg in Exeter, New Hampshire. Thanks, Jon, look forward to your report next month.

GREENBERG: My pleasure.

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