NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 9, 2013

Presidential politics frozen in place

David M. Shribman
Newburyport Daily News

---- — BRETTON WOODS, N.H. — The other day the mid-afternoon wind chill at the top of Mount Washington was minus 73 degrees, with winds of 61 mph. For two days Wildcat Mountain, spiritual home of the toughest, most fearless skiers in New England, actually closed because of the cold. One newspaper warned that the exceptionally low temperatures could dangerously lower motorists’ tire pressure.

The whole state is frozen, physically and politically. The weather deep freeze will soon pass, although the snow atop Mount Washington, the enduring symbol of this state’s ruggedness and independence, won’t melt until July. The political freeze will last longer, especially among Democrats. There will be no movement until two political figures make their intentions known.

One is Hillary Rodham Clinton, the consensus front-runner here if she decides to return to the state where her husband mounted an astonishing comeback in 1992 and where she defeated Barack Obama 16 years later. The other is Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who, though he would be almost 74 on Election Day 2016, is contemplating a third presidential campaign.

As a result, the silent season of presidential politics — when ambitious governors and senators make subterranean calls to area code 603 and quietly court activists, state legislators and prominent politicos — has been put on ice.

The one exception, underlining the level of attention paid to small acts three years from the next New Hampshire primary: The entire political establishment is wondering whether there is any truth to the rumor that state Senate Democratic leader Sylvia Larsen recently received a handwritten note from Clinton. (“Yes, I did,” she said in a telephone interview, confirming the scuttlebutt preoccupying scores of people who live for such morsels and ruminate on what such a note might signal. The rest of the country has better things, like the Super Bowl, to think about.)

“Everybody is waiting to see what Hillary does,” says former state House member Jim Demers, who counts himself as Obama’s first New Hampshire supporter, carbon dating his allegiance to December 2006, when the Illinois senator came here on a book tour. “She could keep the race on hold for at least six months or maybe even a year. She has time to vacation, to rest up.”

Biden stirred speculation here when he invited scores of Democratic activists, many from New Hampshire, to his home at the Naval Observatory the night after he was sworn in for a second term to talk politics. He did not sound like a man planning to retire.

“You have two people with high profiles and long records, and so what they do is the first set of things that will be in play,” says Ned Helms, who was state co-chair of Obama’s campaign the last two elections and is looking for a candidate to support in his 12th New Hampshire primary. “Everything after that is the second chapter, but we haven’t written the first chapter yet.”

The result is a situation where the normal physics of politics is being displaced by a cryogenic episode. This phenomenon — freezing the political class at the moment it is itching to get moving — is rare in American politics. It happened in the 1952 political cycle, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower not only refused to indicate his intentions but also refused to say even whether he was a Republican or Democrat. It last occurred in 1992, when Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York struggled with whether to run right up to the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary.

Right now, much of New Hampshire is waiting for some sign from New York, where Clinton lives, or from the vice presidential mansion, where Biden is examining options and opportunities. If either or both send unmistakable signals that they plan to run, the presidential hopes of others may go into cold eclipse.

Then hardly anyone will care that Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, the most recent chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, worked hard to elect New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan or that he worked with Jeanne Shaheen, now the state’s senior senator, on the presidential campaign of Sen. Gary Hart, who scored a remarkable upset in the 1984 New Hampshire primary. (Word on the street: He knows how to do New Hampshire politics.)

And hardly anyone will notice that Cuomo’s son, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, has led New Hampshire Democrats not to expect any presidential maneuvering here until his re-election campaign is concluded a year from November. (Word on the street: He won’t keep the political world waiting until the last day before the New Hampshire filing deadline, as his father did, with a plane idling on an Albany tarmac and then eventually shutting down its engines.)

Nor will it matter that Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts campaigned mightily for Obama in New Hampshire last fall and seemed to connect well with voters here as he built a network of friends. (Background: Every modern Massachusetts figure running for president except Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who lost in 1980 to Jimmy Carter, and former Gov. Mitt Romney, who lost in 2008 to Sen. John McCain but prevailed four years later, has won the New Hampshire primary.)

Absent Clinton and Biden from the race, any of those figures could emerge. So could any number of relative unknowns. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota? Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York? Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana? Why not?

“Remember, Obama came from nowhere,” says Larsen, the Senate Democratic leader. “He was unknown — and there may be some unknowns this time. Americans like new things.”

Maybe they do. But there was no January thaw in New Hampshire this year. Up here the snow squeaks in the cold and the Silver Cascade waterfall down the side of Mount Jackson is 250 feet of ice, with no movement at all. Everything is frozen in place.

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North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.