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Welcome to Primary Backstage, NHPR's ongoing series that takes you behind the scenes to the places and people who make New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary tick. Sure, the candidates themselves typically grab all the attention when campaign season rolls around. But there's a whole crowd of local folks who make the New Hampshire primary what it is -- to say nothing of the places that have served as backdrops for rallies, meet-and-greets, and spontaneous campaign moments over the years.Whether it's the owners of a Seacoast chowder shack that's played host to generations of candidates, a long-time campaign photographer whose portfolio spans three decades, or the mayor who's canvassed with future presidents, you'll meet them all Backstage.

For N.H. Primary Candidates, a Neighborhood Stroll With the Mayor Has Its Benefits

Brady Carlson
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (left) and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas on a neighborhood walk in the city's North End neighborhood, September 5, 2015.

Many of the candidates for president this year have made an unusual detour from the campaign trail: strolling the sidewalks of a quiet North Manchester neighborhood with the city's mayor.

But it’s actually a longstanding tradition in New Hampshire primary politics. Presidential candidates hope to benefit from their associations with local officials – and the locals stand to gain, too.

Take Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, for instance. Facing re-election in just one month, the three-term mayor spends many an afternoon campaigning door-to-door, a pastime he calls "retail politics at its finest."

"They know their politics in this city," Gatsas says. "They will greet you at the door; they'll be very, very kind to you; they won’t be rude. But it's all about meeting candidates and being able to ask tough questions when they see you."

Gatsas has run – and won – more than a dozen elections over the last 15 years, so he’s had plenty of practice in shoe-leather campaigning. On this day he’s walking through Manchester’s North End, where the large, well-tended houses and shady sidewalks are a long way from the typical bustle of the campaign trail.

And he has company with him: GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO greets him and, after introducing their respective spouses, the two get down to work.

"Shall we walk?" Fiorina says to the mayor. "You know your ward." 

Sara Plourde for NHPR

Gatsas has taken these strolls through the city with several other GOP candidates this year, including John Kasich, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal. In years past, he's walked with the likes of Mitt Romney and John McCain. It's part of a campaign tradition that longtime New Hampshire GOP strategist Patrick Griffin calls "the 'you’ll never walk alone' period” of the Primary.

Griffin says presidential hopefuls like Fiorina need to show they’re in touch with local politics in early voting states – and in New Hampshire, few things fit the bill as well as a neighborhood canvass with a local mayor. 

"Campaigns have become nationalized," he explains. "These debates have done that. By walking a ward, you wind up projecting an optic that says, 'it’s really important to run what really looks more like a local race than a national race.' " 

National figures cozying up to local politicians is a bipartisan affair in primary season. Former Manchester mayor Bob Baines, a Democrat, recalls an unexpected phone call when he first won the job, the year before the 2000 presidential primary. 

"We had a victory party at the old Teamsters hall on Maple Street," Baines said, "and Al Gore actually showed up at my victory party. The sitting vice president, all of a sudden, oh, by the way, I'm in town, I'm coming to Bob Baines' victory party.?

For all the praise of retail politics, the reality of walking wards is rarely glamorous. At the first two houses Gatsas and Fiorina visit, no one answers the door; at the third, the man who answers waves them away. 

But it gets better. Several drivers see the Mayor and honk, a number of residents pledge their support, and at one stop the two candidates get the kind of response they were hoping for when they set out: a voter unloading groceries recognizes the mayor. Fiorina jumps in: “I’m running for president, you really want to meet me!”

The voter’s daughters haven’t gotten their high school diplomas, which in Manchester are signed by the mayor. Gatsas says he’ll take care of the issue. Fiorina adds "I hope you’ll help me.”

“You’ve got to help this guy!” the voter says, of Gatsas.

“Oh, I am," Fiorina replies, "don’t you worry.”

The help Fiorina promises local politicians like Gatsas is the other side of this two-way political street. The mayor is seeking a fourth two-year term this fall, and despite his unbroken record of election victories, Democrats think he’s vulnerable against their candidate this year, alderwoman Joyce Craig.

Strategist Patrick Griffin says hosting presidential hopefuls provides a candidate for mayor extra media attention as well as more tangible benefits in the run-up to election day.

"There’s mail," he says. "There’s robocalling, where candidates’ voices are sometimes used. There are events at which these candidates agree to show up as a special guest to raise money for local candidates."

But there can be downsides to these relationships, too. If a national figure is caught up in controversy, for example, it can reflect badly on the local candidate. Gatsas, for instance, returned a $5,000 donation from Donald Trump this summer after Trump’s comments about Arizona Sen. John McCain's war record.

Baines, the former mayor, adds that Manchester's politics don’t always align with what goes on nationally.

"Manchester has nonpartisan elections," Baines says. "I’ve always felt if you’re going to be elected mayor of Manchester, especially as Democrat, you have to have Republicans and Democrats – so it's a little bit [of a] different flavor when all of a sudden you're a 'nonpartisan' mayor and you're drawn into very partisan politics."

It’s a balancing act for mayoral and presidential candidates: having a national profile but staying in touch with local residents; getting close to each other but not too close.

Which means something as simple as door-to-door campaigning can sometimes be quite complicated.

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