LACONIA, N.H. — Standing before a roaring fire on a cold night in the living room of a comfortable home here, Josh Levin demonstrated why Howard Dean is running away with the hearts of New Hampshire voters — and, probably, his party’s nomination.
Levin, 25, a native of Chicago transplanted to this small town by the Dean campaign, stood before six neighbors assembled at a Dean “house party” and testified as to why he had left home and hearth to proselytize for the former Vermont governor in the frigid expanses of New Hampshire’s lake region.
With the sweet aroma of potpourri and scented candles wafting around him, Levin, a balding young man with an earnest air, spoke simply about his life: how his parents were community activists who met while volunteering in Americorps’ Vista national service program, how he had played sports as a child, how he started at a dot-com and didn’t like it and instead went to work as a budget analyst for the city of Chicago. Finally, he talked of how he had discovered the political movement that was amassing behind Dean.
Taking a day off last year from his Chicago job, Levin followed Dean around in Iowa, bonded with the group around the presidential hopeful and found a mission.
“People understood that it wasn’t about being against the war, the tax cuts or George Bush,” he said at the party, which took place earlier this month. “It was about what small groups can do.”
It was Dean’s appeal distilled to its essence, the secret of his success witnessed in the form of one person: While the candidate might have his flaws, which of his rivals can top Dean’s followers’ dedication?
Levin, who is paid $1,500 a month as a regional director for Dean — plain organizers make $825 — has been kicking around the area since last summer, canvassing and holding house parties for Dean; more than 1,000 had been held in the state by early December. The idea is to get neighbors to invite neighbors around a table to talk about the candidate and his aims, and to get attendees to agree to host their own parties, getting the process to
spread. It has proved a potent method for organizing the state, where voters have grown used to such personal attention.
New Hampshire, with its 19th century mills, white clapboard houses and abundant pines, seems nothing so much as a cold, picturesque political theme park: CSPAN meets Currier & Ives. As electoral propositions go, its January 27 primary — the second contest of the 2004 cycle, after the January 19 Iowa caucuses — would strike a big-state voter as a bit of a scam. With a population of 1.3 million, the state sports fewer people than the New York City subway system during rush hour, and almost all of them are white.
Manchester, with 107,000 souls the largest city, has the air of an overgrown village, with a pokey commercial center. (The most exciting entrée at the must-stop eatery for candidates, the Merrimac Restaurant, an undistinguished diner at the center of town, is the broiled halibut, which comes with what look to be canned green beans.) A Democratic primary here yields 155,000 votes. On that huge plebiscite hinges the careers of the would-be leaders of the free world?
But New Hampshire voters are fond of telling reporters how seriously they take their role as first-line cullers of the candidates, and much of the populace, including the state’s 10,000 Jews, appears mobilized for the election which, after all, brings a lot of money to a state that gets by on some hi-tech and tourism.
Dean’s starry-eyed minions — many, like Levin, idealistic young Jews who bring the zeal of the secularized version of prophetic Judaism to Dean’s operation — simply trump the competition mounted by more traditional candidates in this little fishbowl.
On an early December evening, Dean’s Manchester headquarters, housed in a converted mill, its rough ceiling festooned like a Christmas tree with computer wire, is a hive of activity. Young women in blue jeans titter as they discuss the next day’s staff meeting, a 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. affair that is to center on “the journey we’ve been through,” as one tells another. The headquarters of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, in the same mill office complex, and that of Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, across the Merrimack River in a storefront, appear like tombs by comparison.
Needless to say, with all these bushy-tailed youngsters running about, most New Hampshire Jews — like their neighbors — are “leaning toward Dean,” as several, including two of Manchester’s three pulpit rabbis, told the Forward, despite the presence on the ballot of their co-religionist Lieberman. Not that they are 100% sold, but in a state where antiwar sentiment runs high — 500 New Hampshire reservists were called up the week this reporter visited — the Dean package is compelling.
The unofficial dean of Jewish political observers in the state, retired Manchester dentist David Stahl, talking to the Forward at his home, was frank about the strengths and weaknesses of the man he calls “Howard.” Stahl said he is not supporting Dean “out of any great conversion,” but because Dean conducts himself like a “winner,” and “we need someone who can beat Bush.” Stahl has met Dean three times. The treasurer of the local Jewish federation and a correspondent for its newsletter, the 77-year-old Stahl has snagged exclusive interviews with six of the nine Democratic candidates, including the frontrunner. The Forward, by comparison, writing for a national audience, has spoken to seven.
Stahl’s wife, Barbara, a professor of biology at St. Anselm College, registered the disdain for Lieberman’s religiosity one sometimes sees among Jewish voters. She pronounced Lieberman “too conservative… an echo of Bush.”
“He’s playing the God card,” she said. “That really turns me off.”
Lieberman’s campaign, meanwhile, is trying to create the impression that even if it is not exactly sweeping the Jews it is doing fine among the vast majority of the state’s population — that is to say, the non-Jews — especially among independents, who are permitted to vote in the state’s party primaries. Such might not be expected, given the state’s past antisemitic tinge: Veteran New Hampshire residents recalled that into the 1950s and sometimes later, some areas had “restricted covenants” barring the sale of land to Jews. Meanwhile, the publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, William Loeb, an unrestrained bigot until his death in 1981, exercised his bile by using the word “kike” in headlines.
Toward that end, the campaign made available a top supporter, State Rep. Ray Buckley, the vice-chairman of New Hampshire’s Democratic Party, who described himself as a non-practicing Protestant. Buckley, a teddy bear of a man who wore a scarf against the office’s chill, said people “feel comfortable” with Lieberman and find him “independent.” As for Lieberman’s religion, Buckley said, “he crashed through that ceiling in 2000. It’s not relevant to people.”
Dean’s lead in the polls does not faze him. “I’ve seen things flip so quickly,” said Buckley, citing a large undecided vote. “I wouldn’t bet on any candidate coming in first.”
Lieberman’s state director, Peter Greenberger, told the Forward that he hopes his candidate will come in third, behind Dean and Kerry. That task is looking harder, however, given the recent surge of retired general Wesley Clark. But Lieberman, ever hopeful, has rented an apartment in Manchester for the duration.
Meanwhile, Josh Levin, the Dean organizer, figures his candidate needs 76,000 votes to win, 4,000 of those from the lake region. He did not secure the promise of another house party from any of the attendees of the Laconia gathering, but he did get several of them to agree to supply rides and a big pot of chili to some out-of-state Dean volunteers he was expecting in a few days.
“I could be sitting in my office making calls, but it wouldn’t be that effective,” he told the Forward. “We’re bringing politics into living rooms and across kitchen tables…. trying to build something that brings communities together.”