Commentary: In New Hampshire, Gingrich gets a big boost, but Romney has a big lead

 In the winter of 1987-88, I was deputy political director for Pete du Pont, who was seeking the Republican presidential nomination. We were thrilled when, several weeks before the primary election in February, the Manchester Union Leader gave a strong front-page endorsement of the former Delaware governor.

Nackey Loeb, publisher of the Union Leader, had a habit of putting important editorials on page one – same as a fellow I worked for later, E.L. Gaylord of The Oklahoman. Mrs. Loeb had learned the page one editorial habit from her husband, William Loeb, who had passed away in 1980.

Memories from the du Pont campaign came rushing back when I read about the renamed New Hampshire Union Leader’s page one Sunday morning (November 27) endorsement of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Speculation immediately emerged in commentaries and news stories this morning, concerning the possibility this latest good news for Gingrich could give him enough of a boost to catch former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has led the field for months in polls of likely New Hampshire voters. Romney had 41 percent in support in last week’s Suffolk University poll, leading Gingrich and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, both of whom had 14 percent. Romney’s backing has stayed steady for several weeks, while Gingrich increased from 4 percent to 14 percent since September.

The Union Leader’s endorsement might transform the race, but it might not.
New Hampshire Republicans are a decidedly independent bunch.

Governor du Pont was in some ways a man ahead of his time. After establishing a moderately liberal record in Congress, he governed as a libertarian conservative chief executive. In fact, he vetoed a state budget early in his first term – the first veto of a budget in the First State’s history.

In his presidential campaign, du Pont took deeply principled positions to put farm subsidies on a glide path to zero, allow options in retirement programs for young people while preserving social security for existing beneficiaries, and creating robust parental choice in education through federal tax credits.

While moderate in style, du Pont’s passion about smaller government, lower taxes and long-term sustainability of core federal programs foreshadowed the “Tea Party” intensity that emerged two decades later. He was a good man to work for and believe in. He was effective in debates (memorably asking Bob Dole to sign the “no new taxes” pledge, which Dole refused). Aides to du Pont, including me, worked hard to put on-the-ground strength behind the Union Leader endorsement, but President Ronald Reagan’s warm support for Vice President George H.W. Bush, Bush’s own strengths, and the New England Yankee tendency to stick with the familiar proved our undoing.

Primary election day was memorable. I worked an inner-city Manchester precinct with my oldest son Josef (then 10 years old, and in love with the deep snows there). Josef even held a volunteer’s sign for Democratic candidate Jesse Jackson, so the liberal activist could take a brief coffee and bathroom break. In later years, Rev. Jackson, a friend but a man of deeply different policy views, laughed as we remembered that story.

Vice President Bush won the New Hampshire primary comfortably, followed by Sen. Bob Dole in second, and U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp of New York in third. Pete du Pont finished fourth, followed by the Rev. Pat Robertson in fifth.
The Union Leader’s support helped somewhat, boosting us past Kemp in the Manchester area. In the end, du Pont was the second choice of a majority of voters early in the 1988 cycle, according to a Des Moines Register polling analysis. But second choice in Iowa and New Hampshire meant Pete’s campaign finished far out of contention for the nomination.

Pete gracefully withdrew the morning after he barely beat Robertson in the Granite State. When he came off-stage after the withdrawal in Manchester, he spoke briefly and warmly with me and with my son, who was wearing a du Pont stocking cap to keep warm.

Bush the elder won the nomination, and went on to become president (but only for one term). We all interpret events from where we stand, so I have always contended du Pont was ahead of his time in terms of focused intensive concerns over spending and sustainability.

Subsequently, during my years as editorial page editor for The Oklahoman, in response to a viewer’s question during a C-SPAN interview, I recalled Bill Loeb’s rationale that if you wanted to make sure hard-working readers get the message, put the editorial right there above the fold “out front,” where hard-working and busy people would be sure to notice it.

To those deeply offended by front-page expressions of opinion, I merely observed I saw front-page editorials regularly during my years in the nation’s capital, albeit in the form of news stories in The Washington Post.
Nackey Loeb wrote me a kind note of appreciation with an “atta-boy” for sticking up for the First Amendment rights of newspaper publishers. She passed away in 2000. The publisher of the Union Leader now is the Loebs’ long-time faithful lieutenant, Joseph W. McQuaid.

Personal reflections aside, the Union Leader’s front-page endorsement and Joe McQuaid’s personal support certainly give Gingrich a boost, especially among national pundits looking for a way to sort out the complexities and contradictions of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign.

Still, as was demonstrated to my satisfaction in 1988, any newspaper’s editorial support is not enough to close the deal for voters.

Gingrich is gaining momentum, but Romney remains the front-runner – at least in New Hampshire.