Gov. Steve Bullock

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks with New Hampshire state Rep. Gerri Cannon at the home of Rochester, New Hampshire, Mayor Caroline McCarley on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019.

ROCHESTER, N.H. — Gov. Steve Bullock had already spent the afternoon working the tables at the Friendly Toast diner in Portsmouth, and now he was standing on the backyard patio of the mayor’s house on Nature Lane, feigning hurt that a woman in the crowd had already met and questioned 23 other Democratic presidential candidates before meeting Bullock.

“People are going to remember your name more than mine,” he told Addie Condon, who was taking part in a ritual nearly unique to this small New England state, where vetting presidential hopefuls is serious business and building small cells of local support is seen as a crucial test of a candidate’s viability.

Bullock made the most of his Friday night at Mayor Caroline McCarley’s house, personally chatting up most of the 50 voters present and explaining how his governorship of a manly Republican state and his crusade against dark money in politics — “the fight of my career” — was reason to break him out of the Democratic pack.

“If the New Hampshire primary ever had a purpose, it was a place where, if you had a message and were willing to put in the time, it would make a difference,” said Dan Harkinson, the mayor’s husband. “People really like this retail stuff. Does it still make a difference in a time of social media? I’d like to think so.”

Even as Donald Trump’s presidency has upended norms and scrambled orthodoxies, Democrats are treating the Feb. 11, 2020, New Hampshire primary as the conventional winnowing field that it has been ever since 1952, when Estes Kefauver relentlessly shook hands and schmoozed his way through the state and pushed Harry Truman out of the race with a decisive showing.

Piecing together the elusive combination of local sentiment, volunteer networks, town selectman endorsements, phone lists, high school gymnasium crowds, and the hard-to-define quality of “momentum” is the name of the game here. That makes it a personal affair in New Hampshire, where colonial-era meetinghouses are the visual anchor for many small towns, and the state constitution codifies the belief that voters should be personally acquainted with the people making their laws. The state assembly, the largest in the country, has 424 members.

One of the members who came here to talk directly with Bullock, Rep. Gerri Cannon, ticked off the (mostly) first names of the candidates with whom she’s already exchanged views.

“I’ve met Elizabeth, Pete, Cory, John Delaney, Kamala, Bernie, Marianne…” Cannon said she can’t commit to anyone right now because she won her second seat on a school board by a six-vote margin and doesn’t want to get crosswise with any of her supporters just yet.

As Bullock worked the crowd and sipped on a Harpoon IPA beer, he paused to explain why he is resisting calls to drop out of the race and challenge U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican widely seen as vulnerable.

“I’ve had a great time in the executive branch. I’ve always served in the executive branch,” he said. “There’s folks who can beat Steve Daines. It just won’t be me.”

He had given a multipronged stump speech from the mayor’s porch, relating the oft-told story of how he delivered the Helena Independent Record to the governor’s mansion as a boy, never dreaming he’d one day live in it, and talked about practicality regarding guns, health insurance, and political dark money. The latter involved a brief digression into the history of his home state, as he likened the Charles and David Koch network to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company.

“Montana has this dark history, in some respects,” Bullock said. “Copper barons, we call them the copper kings, these wealthy copper mine owners that controlled every state, local, and federal election, to the point where even Mark Twain talked about Montana. He said that William Clark buys politicians like most people buy food, and corruption actually no longer has an offensive smell in Montana.”

Bullock touted his credentials as a fighter for transparency: he served as the state’s attorney general in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that legalized unlimited expenditures by corporations and unions.

“A newspaper in about 1903 said the greatest issue facing us is whether the corporations should control the people, or the people control the corporations,” he said. “So finally regular folks came together and said enough is enough, and by citizens initiative passed this thing that says corporations cannot spend or contribute in our elections. And I’ll be darned if elections for about a century were like this: people talking and engaging each other.”

A generality, to be sure, but one that resembles the basic outlines of the New Hampshire strategy.

During the question and answer period, a woman in the back began her question with praise. “I like a lot of what you’re saying…”

Bullock interrupted her with a note of mock pathos. “So you’re saying I have a chance?” he asked, to laughter.

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