New Hampshire Landscape Changes for Dem Candidates

The face of New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state, has changed since the presidential election of 2000. Unemployment has nearly doubled. Independent voters are more numerous. Blue-collar jobs are on the decline.

The new economic and political landscape presents a challenge for the Democratic presidential candidates.

Several White House hopefuls - Howard Dean, Bob Graham, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman - will campaign in New Hampshire this holiday weekend, a reflection of the state's status in the nomination process.

Al Gore (search) won the Democratic primary with 50 percent of the vote in 2000, beating former New Jersey Gov. Bill Bradley. Bush prevailed over Gore in the state in the general election.

By the numbers, New Hampshire (search) remains one of the country's wealthiest states, with a per capita income of $34,334, the sixth highest, according to the most recent figures released in 2002. There is no personal income tax or general sales tax, which makes it attractive to its growing population of 1.3 million.

In 2000, New Hampshire was like many states, enjoying the economic good times with a surge in high-paying, high-tech jobs and a low unemployment rate of around 2 percent. Today, the unemployment rate is nowhere near the national figure of 6.1 percent, but it has increased to 3.9 percent.

Since 2000, the state has lost 20,000 manufacturing jobs. The fastest declining occupations are the blue-collar jobs of textile machine operators, shoe and leather workers and sewing machine operators - a factor for Democratic candidates such as Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) of Missouri, whose strength is his appeal to the party's union voters.

Gephardt, who sought the party's nomination in 1988, drew most of his support in that year's primary from working-class voters.

"His challenge is, assuming he's got the working class base, that base is shrinking," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown.

Erik Greathouse, Gephardt's New Hampshire campaign manager, counters that Gephardt is attracting broader support, particularly with his health care plan.

"One of the things we've done is make sure folks understand Congressman Gephardt is not just a labor candidate," he said.

Politically, the proportion of independents among New Hampshire's 690,159 registered voters has increased, from 36.5 percent to 37.7 percent. Republican strength has held steady at 36.7 percent but the number of Democrats has dropped, from 27 percent to 25.6 percent. Independents can vote in the primary.

The task for the Democratic candidates is not only building support among the party's typical voters but winning over the independents, who tend to be younger, wealthier and well-educated. Those voters are spread out, a factor for any campaign strategist.

Although Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents remain a minority in wealthy suburbs, their growing numbers there have steadily undercut the state's blue-collar cities as Democratic strongholds, Scala said.

In the 1976 primary, Democrats in Manchester, the state's largest city, cast nearly three votes for every one cast by Democrats in eight surrounding towns. By 2000, Democratic turnout in suburban towns such as Bedford and Londonderry nearly matched that in the city.

After studying census data and patterns in the last three Democratic primaries, Scala recently concluded that Democrats who appeal to both working-class Democrats and the party's "liberal elite" are much more likely to eventually win the nomination than candidates who appeal mainly to one faction. He cites Gore, Bill Clinton, and Michael Dukakis as examples.

Harping on the struggling economy is certain to be an issue for Democrats, and they will have specific examples for New Hampshire voters.

"The economy is going to be paramount, and any politician who thinks otherwise is a fool," said Paul Needham, a town councilor in Derry, where 450 people lost jobs when a circuit-board plant closed last fall.