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Moving at breakneck speed

By
August 14, 2007

Late-night conference calls, Sundays spent in the office and a diet served in takeout bags are the hallmarks of the final weeks of a presidential primary campaign.

They’re already the norm in the early voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa — and it’s only August.

“We think it’s nonstop now?” says Mike Dennehy, Sen. John McCain’s national political director. “Once we hit Labor Day, it’s going to be blazing fast.”

And it’s not just McCain sprinting. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 14-hour campaign days begin at 7 a.m.; to save time, he carries a gallon Ziploc bag of granola — made by his wife, Ann — to double as breakfast and snacks.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani flew to Iowa for a recent debate, landing less than two hours before it began. And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton flew from New Hampshire to Chicago and back in less than 24 hours, sandwiching an AFL-CIO forum between twin policy addresses here.

The pace is even faster in Iowa, where several forums, the 11-day Iowa State Fair and other events have produced a bumper crop of candidates.

Part of the rush is the ever-accelerating primary calendar, which could well begin this December and produce nominees in February. The race also is the first since 1928 without a sitting president or vice president seeking to stay in the White House. (President Harry Truman dropped out early in 1952, as did his vice president, Alben Barkley, soon afterward.)

Add to that voracious media attention, top candidates who are virtual celebrities and torrid fundraising, and it’s clear the relative sanity of Augusts of yore is a thing of the past.

“Everything is happening earlier this time around. I think the campaign just started earlier,” said Patricia Harris, a minister in Nashua, N.H., who has met all the candidates and endorsed Clinton.

Like many key community organizers in early voting states, Harris was hoping to lay low for a while after being deeply involved in the last primary campaign — for Democratic Sen. John Kerry, in her case.

That didn’t last long.

“Things are so bad in this country that we need to do something now,” she said. “I get annoyed when people say, ‘Talk to me in a year.’ We can’t wait.”

Others obviously share her sense of urgency. When freshman New Hampshire Rep. Paul Hodes endorsed Sen. Barack Obama last month, the candidate flew in for a two-hour visit that attracted 600.

“You’ve never rolled out a major endorsement in August (during past cycles). The fact that they seem to be going fast and furious in the beginning of August shows the intensity is significantly different than in the past,” said Ray Buckley, state Democratic chairman in New Hampshire.

“It was not that long ago that presidential candidates took vacations in the month of August to prepare for the upcoming presidential primary season. It is a very different primary than we’ve had before,” Buckley said.

Unchanged, however, is the need for candidates to spend large amounts of time in early states, where voters typically think long and hard before choosing.

Recently, Giuliani was the latest presidential hopeful to stop by the Flapjack Family Restaurant in Maquoketa, Iowa.

“We’ve been here for about 24 years. For whatever reason we’ve had an awful lot of activity,” said owner Sid Thompson, who actually lives in Minneapolis.

He said celebrity doesn’t count for much with Maquoketa’s 6,000 residents.

“They’re open to listening to the candidates, but the residents here do an awful lot of digesting of information rather than being overwhelmed by the candidates being here,” he said.

The same appears to be true in New Hampshire, if the latest University of New Hampshire poll for CNN and WMUR-TV is any guide. The poll found that 64 percent of Democrats still haven’t made up their minds, and 71 percent of Republicans said the same.

“I know you people in New Hampshire like to shop,” Obama said during a recent stop. “You like to take us for a test drive, like to kick our tires.”

Those tires, meanwhile, are going to keep spinning at full speed.

“I don’t think it’s possible (to slow),” Dennehy said. “It’s full steam ahead. You try to squeeze out as much as you can from a 24-hour day.”

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Associated Press writer Mike Wilson in Iowa contributed to this report.