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Reflections on presidential primary elections past from New Hampshire to Oregon

Watching the New Hampshire presidential primary results stirred memories that remain strong for Spencer Kunath, although it's been almost exactly a dozen years since he was "on the ground" there doing advance work for 2004 Democratic hopeful retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

Kunath's recollections included his experience on election day's earliest hours in Dixville Notch, the best-known of a cluster of villages in the Granite State's far north where national media attention out of all proportion to the actual import is focused each presidential election year, as it was this year.

Dixville exists as a town only for voting purposes. It's a precinct that sits almost entirely on the property of The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, a renowned old summer retreat for the wealthy. And its nine registered voters this year (in 2004 there were 24, with Clark on hand for the midnight voting and winning the most Democratic votes) were almost all employees of the hotel, which is now being overhauled.

My conversations in recent days with Kunath, who a year after his New Hampshire experience as he was preparing to spend his junior year at Oxford served the summer of 2005 as my intern at Puget Sound Business Journal, prompted me to recall some of my own primary-election experiences in the days before PSBJ.

My most compelling memory is of the 1968 Oregon primary, my first primary as a 28-year-old political writer, where Robert Kennedy's driven effort to win the Democratic nomination for president hit a snag. Oregonians gave anti-war candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy that state's nomination nod, the first-ever loss for a Kennedy.

I had the opportunity election night to be immersed in the sea of young supporters waiting in front of Portland's Benson Hotel for the defeated candidate's limo to arrive so they could demonstrate their continued affection for him and his campaign.

Then the limo arrived and Kennedy emerged behind the imposing frame of Jim Whittaker, the Seattleite and Everest conqueror who had become a close friend and constant companion of Kennedy's on the campaign trail.

I had been standing next to an ABC reporter named Bob Clark who quickly and literally disappeared beneath the mass of surging, shouting Kennedy supporters and I avoided Clark's fate by grabbing Whittaker's belt as he pushed past and held on until we had arrived inside the hotel.

As we wrote the stories that night, back at the Portland UPI bureau, to bring newspapers and broadcast outlets news of the outcome, I recall the headline the senior reporter put on his story: "Kennedy bushwhacked on the Oregon trail."

I recalled vividly that headline a week later when in fact Kennedy was "bushwhacked," assassinated by a gunman as he moved through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel following his remarks after his victory in the California primary.

Reflections on Kennedy in "The Last Campaign," as the book that detailed his 82-day campaign was titled, struck me as particularly thought-provoking for this 2016 campaign.

Because, although he feared, as he told one confidant, that there were "guns between me and the White House," he risked his life to ask Americans to help him reclaim "the generous impulses that are the soul of this nation."

That's the kind of exhortation to healing and hope not likely to grace the lips of any presidential candidate of either party during this campaign 48 years on from RFK's tragic quest to reclaim his brother's legacy and create one of his own.

But back to Kunath and his New Hampshire primary recollections of 2004 and that election climax at Dixville Notch (a word that means pass, incidentally, in White Mountains parlance).

There are a couple of possibly thought-provoking ways to view Dixvlle in the context of its primary election role.

First it could be that as merely a marketing creation to attract attention to Dixville and its grand hotel during primary season it's an appropriate reflection of the marketing that has created the campaigns of some of the presidential hopefuls seeking support from the voters in New Hampshire and in other states. Not quite entirely real but close.

Or the voters in Dixville may represent what Democracy was supposed to be about: Everyone who has the franchise votes (they all gather before midnight and cast their votes since the polls can close only after all registered voters have cast ballots) , and those seeking their support are likely to shake hands with each voter.

Let's see. Out of all proportion to reality. A marketing creation to attract otherwise unlikely attention. Perhaps the ultimate exercise in Democracy. I guess that would be a trio of descriptions that could apply to the nation's primary election season and its presidential hopefuls.

Kunath was 19 and a sophomore at DePauw University when he was dispatched by the Washington State Democratic Committee away from the Washington State gubernatorial race to help in the New Hampshire campaign.

"The voters there (referring to Dixville and the nearby villages) are really accustomed to direct one-on-one interaction with the candidates and expect that they'll come and sit for a visit," Kunath said. "It's a totally different world."

Kunath and I talked about the challenge facing reporters covering any campaign (now as in 2004 and 1968) from aboard the bus of a particular candidate, and the thought occurred to me that it might be a reason the media is often accused of bias.

"Reporters on a campaign bus need access to the candidate so they avoid saying anything negative about the guy whose bus they are on," said Kunath with the insight of one who has had a chance to be there.

"If they get kicked off the bus, they will lose their job because their employer is unlikely to pay for a rental car rather than to just assign a different reporter to the candidate," he added.
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