NH offers chance to interact with candidates

New Hampshire really is a special place. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when my wife and I attended a fundraiser for Sen. Kelly Ayotte in Warner. There were around 40 folks in attendance, and the agenda called for cocktails, dinner and remarks from Sen. Ayotte.

The setting was spectacular, actually on a working bison ranch. The whole atmosphere screamed New England, but what occurred there was strictly New Hampshire.

Few of us were expecting any special guests beyond Sen. Ayotte and her family, but about 15 minutes into the event, South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham appeared. So there we were, 40 of us, in Warner, on a Bison ranch, with two of our 100 elected U.S. senators – one of whom is a presidential candidate.

If you described this scene to people in other states, they probably would not believe you. But in New Hampshire, every four years at

least, it happens.

Sen. Graham, as it turns out, was not just there to shake hands and move on to his next event. He stayed for the entire evening, spending much of it singing the praises of Sen. Ayotte. Not only did he stay; he plunked himself down on a seat next to my wife and me and joined our table for dinner.

Sen. Graham was, to say the least, a terrific dinner companion. He was not only intelligent, informed and interesting – he was hilarious. He and Sen. Ayotte are close friends, and I can understand why. I walked away from the evening not only having learned a lot, but having had a great time.

I realize that Sen. Graham is – at this point, at least – a long shot to win the Republican nomination. My purpose in this column is not to trumpet him as the best candidate. New Hampshire voters can decide that for themselves.

What I would like to do, though, is share some of his perspective on our state, the New Hampshire primary and its importance to our democratic process.

Sen. Graham made it clear to us that he loves New Hampshire, and he loves campaigning here. One of the things he appreciates is that New Hampshire is truly a “purple” state. It is neither strongly Republican nor strongly Democrat.

People here tend to be less wedded to the two-party system than in states like Iowa. They pay attention, they listen, they think and then they make a decision. New Hampshire folks do not, he said, like to be told what to do. It was, I must admit, nice to hear these things from such a qualified outsider.

Sen. Graham stressed to us his view that the New Hampshire primary is essential to our democratic political process. He views it as just about the last remaining place in America where candidates take their message directly to the people and have that message heard clearly and seriously considered by the voters.

People in New Hampshire, he said, are invested in the process. They understand its importance to the system and act accordingly. In short, he reaffirmed for me that what happens in the New Hampshire primary matters a great deal, and almost always affects the outcome of the presidential election.

While Sen. Graham was enthusiastic about New Hampshire and its primary, he also issued to us a stern warning: “They are coming after you,” he said. “They,” he said, are the big-money players, the folks who want to use their finances to gain more influence over the political process.

The New Hampshire primary, he said, stands in the way of their goal of controlling the election cycle and influencing its outcome. He views our primary as one of the most important pillars of our democratic process. In no uncertain terms, he said, for the good of the country, New Hampshire must remain vigilant and do what is necessary to protect its status as the first-in-the-nation primary.

To a large extent, Sen. Graham’s comments confirmed what many of us have suspected all along: Our primary is unique, and it is important. Is there any other state where it is possible to not just meet, but to question and interact with each and every presidential candidate directly during the primary process?

I am far from a significant source of campaign contributions, nor am I the CEO of a large company. But so far, in addition to my evening with Sen. Graham, I have attended a small breakfast with Carly Fiorina, a small luncheon with Gov. Scott Walker, and an extensive question-and-answer session with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

What I have learned is that by interacting with a candidate directly, it really is possible to get a feel for the candidate as a person. It helps to differentiate them from one another.

Graham, as I have said, blew me away with his wit and intelligence, and the depth of his understanding with respect to both foreign and domestic policy.

Fiorina was not only intelligent and articulate, but had some interesting thoughts on using technology to reduce the size of government and make it more efficient. The fact that she and her husband lost a child to addiction, for me, both humanized and humbled her.

Christie is one of us. Funny, direct, he impressed me as a complete straight shooter and refreshing politician.

As for Walker, well, I was a bit creeped out by what appeared to be a borderline fetish with Ronald Reagan.

I certainly do not suggest that you trust my conclusions. What I do suggest is that you take advantage of the opportunity to interact with these candidates and draw your own.

As Sen. Graham pointed out, in New Hampshire we have a unique opportunity to make a good choice in our primary. That good choice can, in turn, help the country make the right choice for president. That, when all is said and done, is the New Hampshire way.

Scott Flegal is a business lawyer and mediator. Visit him at www.flegal.com or www.negotiationworks.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hscottflegal and read his blog at scottflegal.com.