Political observers say New Hampshire voters are having a harder time interacting with presidential candidates this year.
“New Hampshire still offers the opportunity for all its citizens to make their own independent and undeluded judgments after seeing, hearing, and touching the candidate himself. If voters did not talk to the candidate, it’s because they did not want to.”
– Former New Hampshire Gov. Hugh Gregg, “The Candidates: See How They Run” (1990)
His budget hawk talk over, Mitt Romney exited his campaign event at the historic Exeter Town Hall last Thursday. He did not take questions from voters, nor did he take any from reporters.
And Leonard Fleischer did not take any offense.
The undecided voter from Exeter sees it as a way for the Republican presidential front-runner to avoid being caught off-guard.
"As (the stakes) get bigger and bigger, you lose that intimacy," Fleischer said after the event.
But isn’t that intimacy, the ability for a voter to get up-close-and-personal with the candidates, the very heart of the New Hampshire Primary?
This year, voters have begun to see a change. Instead of countless retail stops and town hall meetings where the candidates field dozens of questions, the frontrunners, at least, are more likely to slip into town for a quick event, take few or no questions, and fly back out again.
Romney may be the worst offender, if only because he is leading in the polls.
His campaign called the Exeter stop a “special event,” not a town hall meeting. But his rivals accused him of dissing the political ritual.
“Once again Mitt Romney is unwilling to do it the New Hampshire way and take questions from voters,” said Michael Levoff, a spokesman for Jon Huntsman.
With a 20-30 percent lead in the polls here, Romney has nothing to gain by making himself available to voters, political observers point out.
“There’s a very tightly scripted, very carefully crafted optic around these candidates,” said Pat Griffin, a senior fellow at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute for Politics, who has worked on campaigns for both George H.W. and George W. Bush. “The ones making themselves accessible are the ones nobody wants to spend a lot of time learning about. Jon Huntsman will change your cat litter box if you’d like – as will Rick Santorum – but I’m not sure there’s a lot of interest in having them do that.”
He doesn’t think Romney’s unwillingness to face the voters will change unless he starts slipping in the polls.
“Nothing will change until something changes,” Griffin said. “That is to say, unless or until the Romney people feel they’ve got something to defend.
“Someone will emerge as an alternative to Mitt,” he added. “Once that happens, you’re going to suddenly find Mitt Romney shoveling your walk, making dinner, hanging out with your kids…”
Romney supporter Lori Guba, of Exeter, said that while distancing yourself from voters conflicts with New Hampshire's personal-politics atmosphere, it's smart at this stage of the game.
"The rest of the field is kind of bumbling," Guba said.
Guba said Romney's biggest focus should be staying above the fray and keeping his lead – and not necessarily connecting with voters.
"I would like to see him keep his eye on the prize," she said. "He's the only candidate who can beat Barack Obama."
Others disagree. Regardless of whether he’s way out in front, Romney has a responsibility to the voters, said Jerry DeLemus, chairman of the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, a local Tea Party group.
“They think they can do it with soundbites and commercials, and maybe so. But that’s not the kind of change I’m looking for,” DeLemus said. “If you’re not willing to be courageous enough to talk to the American people, how are you going to be courageous enough to lead our country?”
DeLemus said Romney declined numerous invitations to speak with New Hampshire liberty groups, then attended a rally held by the national Tea Party Express organization in Concord. That led DeLemus to organize a protest denouncing the former Massachusetts governor’s unwillingness to speak with his and other local Tea Party groups.
“You want us to vote for you, but you won’t even come and speak to the groups and have the hard questions asked,” DeLemus said. “They like it that way and they’re trying to protect their position, almost like a sporting event. It’s really frustrating. Especially when the country’s in such dire straits and we really need courageous leadership.”
He encountered similar resistance as his group struggled to organize a Nov. 10 debate focusing on the Constitution. Romney said early on that he wouldn’t be able to make it, but DeLemus said several other campaigns said they’d be there, only to back out later.
Another front-loaded presidential nominating calendar could play a factor. The candidates have also had a busy debate schedule.
Whether or not the candidates are stretched thin, voter access in New Hampshire continues to be great, said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.
He said the top candidates, including Romney, are accessible. He recalls that, as a voter, he received around 30 invites to Romney events, and that at one of them, the first person questioning Romney was a Democrat.
Republican activist and former state Rep. Fran Wendelboe said she just thinks the campaign season has been slow to pick up steam, and voters will see more opportunities to interact with the candidates over the next nine weeks.
“I think it was late getting started, and the early visits were more structured,” she said.
Wendelboe said Romney and Huntsman, in particular, have held a lot of open town hall meetings. But she acknowledged that it can be difficult at some of those events for a regular voter to get a question in and actually have it answered.
Former Republican congressional candidate Jennifer Horn of Nashua said she’s been impressed at the amount of time the candidates have been spending in New Hampshire. But she said she has heard people complain about a lack of accessibility, especially with the larger campaigns like Romney and Rick Perry. And that’s a problem.
“I think it is critically important that candidates do give real voters – average, undecided voters – access to them, free and open access,” she said. “They have to be willing to answer any question from any voter if they want us to believe they are qualified to take on the position of leader of the free world.”