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The Stuff Stump Speeches Are Made Of

I’m standing with my son Sam outside of Bookends, our local bookstore, on Main St. in Warner, N.H. A man on a mission, my book “Tax Pollution, Not Income” under my arm. We’re waiting for former Vermont governor Howard Dean. The candidate is late. The rain’s just stopped, and it’s almost sunny.

The place is packed, 200 people jammed into the now-sweltering gallery space in the converted barn attached to the community book store. There are, beyond the young and earnest Dean staffers, a surprising scattering of locals in this politically active town wearing blue Dean buttons. Chris, a college professor and activist, is working for a candidate he recognizes as neither a radical nor the most liberal. But electable. Sort of Clinton redux, I guess, but with clearer ideas, and sufficient chutzpah to stand up to George W. Bush.

A guy who can win provides some succor for the New Hampshire radical soul that’s spent years in campaigns past supporting the likes of a populist senator Fred Harris, a Jerry Brown, an Alan Cranston. So Chris will not be having dinner with Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich at the Tea Garden in Concord tomorrow night with other activists. Still, Kucinich campaigns on canceling NAFTA and dissolving the World Trade Organization, and for a Cabinet-level “department of peace.”

Kucinich, for now, seems like the girl you love, but not the one you’ll decide to marry. His trip to New Hampshire is only his second. Dean is here often enough to qualify for residency — and is leading or tied with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in the polls. The accursed polls.

New Hampshire is a mostly Republican and conservative state. But “Live Free or Die” means something around here. Some dozens of us from Warner were arrested in civil disobedience actions to oppose the local Seabrook nuclear plant. We helped stop one of the two planned reactors.

But now Bush — notwithstanding questions of terrorism, nuclear proliferation and ecology — is pushing his energy policy act through the Senate that will have the government pay for half the cost of a new generation of nukes, reprocess nuclear waste and extend the Price Anderson Act that limits nuclear industry liability. So when Dean says that renewable resource development is a matter of national security, people here listen.

Dean was scheduled for 5 p.m., last stop of the day. For a candidate without discipline or a stern staff, and in pursuit of opportunity, this could be a long wait indeed. Primary vets, we trade tales with the CNN guys from Boston of waits for candidates past. Reverend Jesse Jackson was the champion, with a Sly Stone-like propensity both to keep crowds waiting and to perform when he arrived. But the rainbow died.

Dean is made of more disciplined stuff. Not too late, his car’s seen driving by heading south, apparently lost. In a few minutes Dean, in a swell blue suit, a smile and a pace that seems either prudently presidential or campaign tired walks up and shakes my son Sam’s hand.

“Good to meet you.” says the governor.

“I’ve met you twice before,” Sam says.

New Hampshire is that kind of place. We have access and occasionally influence, if not always efficacy. The second time they met, a few months ago at the 100 Club fundraiser in Manchester, Dean remembered Sam. He was with his mother, whom Dean knew as a labor organizer of awesome repute who had helped rescue Al Gore from Bill Bradley in the 2000 primary.

Man on a mission, I hand Howard “Tax Pollution, Not Income,” and tell him that he could run in New Hampshire, not just with the familiar refrain “no new taxes”, but on “no old taxes.” Abolish the income tax and dissolve the IRS, and instead tax pollution, depletion and ecological damage with consumption taxes that allow the market to send signals for sustainability.

With practiced aplomb, the governor hands the book to his New Hampshire coordinator, Karen Hicks. An old friend of ours, she’s a transplanted southerner, a young, dynamic woman in a hurry who Sam calls “Brother Hicks.” Karen and I chat about the candidate’s virtues, which include his propensity to read everything — perhaps even “Tax Pollution, Not Income” this evening in Henniker, N.H., home of New England College and the only Henniker on earth.

Unlike Dean, who’s now a poll and media vet and a serious contender, Kucinich is still on the outside looking in at New Hampshire. The Ohio congressman’s speech to a full house at Manchester’s Institute of Art is garlanded with veteran activists and high spirits. My energy question and pollution-tax idea are well received. The crowd is sufficiently radical and suffused with anti-Bush sentiment to run over Kucinich’s carefully formulated responses to questions. Discussing the Middle East, the audience cuts off his line supporting Israeli security to cheer his statement opposing settlement activity.

But Kucinich is late arriving and uncertain if he’ll return. He hasn’t learned what Jimmy Carter, John McCain and now Howard Dean have discovered: An unknown candidate with time, straight talk and the willingness to go one-on-one with New Hampshire voters can win here. In the past, that was enough to get their party’s nomination.

In the imperial age, it’s not clear if votes here — or anywhere — will really matter much anymore. But you gotta have hope.

Roy Morrison is the author of, most recently, “Tax Pollution, Not Income” (Beshert Books, 2003).

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