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Jobs and the economy are central issues in the presidential campaign. And this week, we're looking at how the economic hopes and fears of the early voting states may shape the first contest. This morning: New Hampshire.
Dan Gorenstein of New Hampshire Public Radio reports that despite the state's economic stability, lots of Republicans voters see clouds ahead.
DAN GORENSTEIN, BYLINE: When it comes to economics, New Hampshire's a little like that fictionalized Minnesota town. You know the one: where all the women are strong and all the men are good-looking.
Economist Ross Gittell says it's true. New Hampshire's got some attractive numbers.
ROSS GITTELL: The national unemployment rate is 8.6 percent. New Hampshire, it's currently 5.2 percent. New Hampshire has relatively high per capita income, the lowest poverty rate in the nation.
GORENSTEIN: But Gittell is quick to add: It's all relative. Like most everywhere else in the country, New Hampshire's lost jobs, had its confidence shaken.
GITTELL: The economic outlook for families across New Hampshire has declined quite significantly since the last primary.
GORENSTEIN: During the recession, in and around New Hampshire, residential construction work dried up. That's made the last few years pretty tough for Susan Collins and her husband, who are trying to support their teenage daughters. Collins says her clients - penny-wise Yankee shop owners - aren't exactly excited when she comes in with her lighting fixtures.
SUSAN COLLINS: I know I'm not going to walk in and get an order from them, a big order. And I know I am not going to get it, because they're not buying, really, right now. They're being very, very cautious of how they spend their money.
GORENSTEIN: Collins says she's shopped for a presidential candidate who will lift the nation's mood. She gravitates to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. She likes that he helped turn around the Olympics. She wants to believe maybe he could help our economy, too. See, for Collins, who lives in a nice neighborhood in Salem with pretty homes and well-groomed lawns, this recession has scared her and her neighbors: people who never thought they'd have to worry.
COLLINS: It's an emotional thing, talking about the economy and, you know, you want your kids to have a good life, and you do worry that things aren't going to get better.
GORENSTEIN: For many New Hampshire Republicans, national economic concerns frame how they look at the Republican candidates. But for union members in the party here, it's different. This past year, state lawmakers tried to turn New Hampshire into a so-called right-to-work state. That would have meant workers could have benefited from a collective bargaining agreement without paying union dues. It was a bitter campaign.
JEFF BROWN: I have never, in 25 years, been called a thug. You know, the fact of the matter is, the tone of it has taken a toll on people.
GORENSTEIN: Jeff Brown is the fire chief in Seabrook and the treasurer of the Rockingham County Republican Committee. Brown says the presidential contenders only fanned the flames when they backed the right-to-work legislation, trying to curry favor with local politicians.
BROWN: These presidential candidates have a choice. They either want us to stay home, or they want us to be active, voting members of the party.
GORENSTEIN: What are you guys saying, cop and firefighter and steelworker Republican guys get together...
BROWN: Drinking beer.
GORENSTEIN: Drinking beer - what are you guys saying, as far as the primary is concerned?
BROWN: We're staying home. Or even better than that, we'll give them what they want. We'll pick out the nuttiest one of the bunch, and that's who we're going to vote for. You never know. Ron Paul may be - may reap the benefit of ticked-off public employees.
GORENSTEIN: It's not hard to find angry, frustrated Republicans in New Hampshire right now. Like Fire Chief Brown, Joe and Judith Maloy feel beat up, too. But for them, it's because they're successful.
JOE MALOY: One of the things that's happened in this that in this current economy is that we've become the bad guys. It's the business owners. You know, I've all of a sudden I've become Simon Legree, and she's Cruella Deville.
GORENSTEIN: The Maloys are among most affluent in the state. They run a successful mail-order business, expecting to gross more than $40 million this year - so successful, they actually want to expand their company, create new jobs. But with so much economic uncertainty out there, Joe says the company can't move right now.
MALOY: What's unknown is, is that $10-an-hour employee going to cost me $15, or is it going to be 18, 20, 25?
GORENSTEIN: The Maloys don't know who they'll vote for yet. And for them, like many New Hampshire Republicans, they're less interested in any particular person. They just want the candidate who's going to attack the deficit, stop the sense of economic freefall and help them be a little less scared.
For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.
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