MANCHESTER, N.H. — No doubt, the Global Positioning System is one of the greatest inventions to come along in a long time. That voice that tells us to turn left, right, and pull a U-turn is so reassuring. On a night last weekend, I would have been as lost as a little lamb in New Hampshire snow without it. Driving the highway from Nashua to Manchester seemed less stressful with the knowledge that a satellite signal in the sky had figured out a way to keep me from getting lost and on the right path to my destination.
That happened to be Saturday night's double-header debate on the campus of St. Anselm College, which gave voters a chance to hear the candidates from both parties. It was cold, and outside the snow was piled two feet high, but inside the Dana Center for the Humanities, the candidates were getting hot. In this state, whose motto is "Live Free or Die," it, in fact, was do or die for Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton.
Clearly, not only Governor Romney and Senator Clinton but all the candidates have become hyper-aware of a new fact since last week's Iowa caucuses. A new word, the word, has emerged like a beacon on the elective radar: change. Folks in New Hampshire are using a kind of political GPS to determine which candidate will make the quickest U-turn on the policies and actions of the last seven years. Most want a change in almost every policy and aspect of government, both foreign and domestic. Tina, a 20-year-old student/waitress at Chili's in Nashua, summed it up this way: "I'm not sure who I am voting for yet, but I am looking for the one who is going to pull a fast 180."
But before the primary, the people here will have to navigate through something else: a monster spin machine. After the debates last Saturday night, the spinning was so full-tilt, it felt like I was watching a Maytag overloaded with too many towels. Every candidate had a spin-doctor, and the stampede of cameras, recorders, mics, and lights was like the stampeding buffalo scene in Dances with Wolves.
Elizabeth Edwards entered the room post-debate looking energized as she passionately discussed her husband's performance. She predictably claimed he had hit a home run and emphasized his "you cannot 'nice' people to death" comment, an obvious jab at the call of both Obama and Richardson for dialogue with Pakistan's Musharraf and other leaders in the Middle East, and maybe also the idea of trying to persuade corporation executives to sweeten up regarding their workers' rights. That's a bone he picks with Clinton.
Assisting Elizabeth Edwards in her task was former Michigan congressman David Bonior, who pointed out Edwards' debate commitment to end all combat missions in Iraq and to close all bases there in the first year of his presidency. The estimable Joe Trippi, former manager of the Howard Dean campaign, was putting additional frosting on the Edwards cake by claiming Edwards would definitely carry the day on Tuesday.
Obama had his own spin game going through the medium of campaign strategist David Axelrod, who immediately declared Obama to be the clear winner and forecast an even sunnier outcome in the New Hampshire primary for his candidate than he got in Iowa.
The room was also filled to the rafters with heavy hitters such as Joe Scarborough, Joe Klein, Bay Buchanan, and Jeff Greenfield, each trying to out-spin and out-opinionate the other. This went on for well over an hour, at which time the media fanned out to various networks and local stations to broadcast their latest chestnuts.
Ultimately, on Tuesday, the spinmasters had to yield to the good people of the Granite State, who had their work cut out for them. The die is cast and the call for a change in direction is resonating loud and clearly. With weeks of campaigning, voting, and spinning still to go, we can only speculate on whose voices we might be hearing when the nation heads to the polls in November.
Cheri DelBrocco, who, along with Flyer political editor Jackson Baker, has been on the campaign trail, writes the "Mad as Hell" column for MemphisFlyer.com.