A presidential vacation

National | Forget Washington. Try New Hampshire, instead

Issue: "The new school year," Sept. 11, 1999

Want to take your kids on a vacation where they can meet the president? You'll never get past the concrete barricades and Secret Service officers in Washington, D.C. Instead, think about visiting the state where presidents are made: New Hampshire. A visit to the Granite State during campaign season is a journey back in time. This is democracy as the Founding Fathers envisioned it: ground-level, one-on-one, question-and-answer, nowhere-to-hide democracy. It's the Wild, Wild East of American politics, where individual contact with real, live voters has been known to reduce a candidate literally to tears. If all you've seen is the VIP-in-the-spotlight look of paid campaign advertising, wait till you see the deer-in-the-headlights look that can follow a particularly tough question on the stump. As educational vacations go, New Hampshire offers a fascinating blend of civics, history, and geography-not to mention tax-free shopping. The state's 1.1 million residents take seriously their role as a kind of electoral winnowing machine. They expect a level of individual contact with candidates that most Americans would never dream of. Former Arizona Sen. Morris Udall, campaigning for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, once shook a voter's hand and asked if she intended to vote for him. "I don't know yet," she replied famously, "I've only met you twice." Twice may be too much to hope for, but a trip to New Hampshire any weekend this fall is likely to yield at least one meeting with a possible future president. Get an autograph, shake a hand, ask a question. Imagine what politics felt like before the advent of broadcasting. New Hampshire isn't the only candidate stomping ground, of course, but it offers advantages over Iowa for an educational family vacation. First, for many fliers it's cheaper to get to. Manchester Airport boasts two discount carriers-MetroJet and Southwest-while Iowa remains a stubbornly expensive market for air service. Secondly, the state's small size makes it easier to get around once you're on the ground. Since almost any two cities are within a two-hour drive of each other, it's easy to catch multiple candidate appearances on the same day. Finally, the candidates tend to be more accessible in New Hampshire. Because Iowa is a caucus state, campaigns focus more on motivating and turning out the party faithful than they do on broad-scale stumping. That means lots of hotel breakfasts and other events that require a ticket or invitation. New Hampshire, on the other hand, is a primary state, so candidates try to shake as many hands as possible. That means lots of pig roasts, county fairs, and town meetings that anyone can get in on-even non-residents. Finding such events is relatively simple. Go to www.nhgop.org and follow two links: The "calendar" link indicates months in advance which events have invited candidates to attend, and the "presidential candidates" link takes you to individual campaign websites, some of which list upcoming appearances. Most campaign schedules don't solidify more than several days in advance, so you'll want to lock in your low airfare with a 21-day advance purchase, then keep your itinerary on the ground as flexible as possible. With most of the state's population clustered in the south and east, that's easy to do. Manchester is little more than a half-hour drive from most larger towns, including Concord, Nashua, Exeter, Derry, and Dover. For some natural beauty between rounds of the presidential beauty contest, try booking a bed-and-breakfast in the Lakes Region, which lies northeast of Manchester. Laconia is the largest town here, but every little village in the region boasts at least one "resort" on the banks of a crystal-clear lake. North and west of Lake Winnipesaukee lie the White Mountains, which are particularly breathtaking in the fall. The town of Conway is perfectly situated halfway between the lake to the south and 5,300-foot Mt. Washington to the north. Besides the natural wonders, Conway also boasts scores of outlet stores, made all the cheaper by New Hampshire's lack of a sales tax. Finally, don't miss the quaint, seafaring town of Portsmouth. With its narrow, winding streets and clapboard houses, it offers a taste of quintessential coastal New England. But don't let the beauty and history distract you from the goal of showing your family how democracy is supposed to work. Any of these towns should keep you well within range of all the political goings-on, so be sure to take advantage. At a recent town meeting in Ossipee, a red-headed kid interrupted the questions on tax reform and national defense to ask Sen. John McCain about the future of the space program. How many 14-year-olds get that kind of opportunity? Just try not to make the candidates cry.

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