By Darren Garnick - 01/12/12 12:02 AM EST
MANCHESTER, N.H. — If not for an unexpected twist of marketing fate, New Hampshire primary season could have been every summer instead of just every four years.
In the fall of 2003, the Double-A minor-league baseball affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays was moved from New Haven, Conn., to Manchester.
An immediate public backlash led management to reconsider. A team rebranding contest was held, with the Fisher Cats (the unofficial state rodent) winning over the finicky fans. Nostalgic yearning for the team-that-never-was a few years ago brought back the New Hampshire Primaries for an annual “Turn Back the Clock” night.
Now, the “retro” (is 2003 retro?) Uncle Sam-logo T-shirts are “flying off the shelves,” according to Fisher Cats President Rick Brenner.
“That logo says New Hampshire. It says baseball. It says America,” he says. “Nothing says patriotism like baseball on a summer night.”
The Fisher Cats made the Primaries logo a permanent part of their uniform sleeves this year, even as the future character of the first-in-the-nation primary continues to be in doubt.
The sharp increase in the number of network debates this election cycle caused GOP candidates like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann to limit their physical campaigning here — although Gingrich stepped it up in the final week.
A recent analysis of campaign expenditures by the New Hampshire Business Review concluded that Republican candidates spent $4.6 million in the state during the first nine months of 2011, far off the pace of the $12.1 million total spent by the GOP here in 2008.
According to a 2000 University of New Hampshire study on the economic impact of the New Hampshire primary, approximately 85 percent of campaign spending goes to TV ad time rather than goods and services from small businesses.
The new Business Review report echoed this conclusion, noting that primary-related revenues barely show up on the radar compared to the state’s true economic bonanza — year-round tourism.
But at diners across the state, there is no contesting the lasting sentimental value of the primary. While favorite politician haunts in Washington, D.C., might still hang an autographed photo or two, it is not uncommon for New Hampshire eateries to build expansive shrines to their cameo roles in the presidential campaigns.
At Manchester’s Red Arrow Diner, the front door proudly shouts that customers are about to enjoy an omelet where former Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and current GOP candidate Mitt Romney once shared the same breakfast counter with musical group the Bare Naked Ladies, actor Adam Sandler and news anchor Diane Sawyer (though not simultaneously). Red nameplates affixed to the counter show diners exactly which stool hosted which celebrity posterior.
A short stroll around the corner, Caesario’s Pizza boasts a wall of fame honoring President George W. Bush and a slew of presidential also-rans, such as retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (D), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R).
“When President Bush got to Manchester Airport, he reportedly asked where’s the best pizza, and they sent him here,” beaming owner Nir Shpindler says. “That’s pretty cool.
“Newt Gingrich recently ordered a couple of slices of sausage,” he adds. “Newt’s like a big, kind teddy bear.”
With the surge of media and campaign volunteers in the city this week, Shpindler says his normal 2-5 p.m. dead zone is now a “constant lunch that never stops.
“The primary doesn’t make or break our business, but it’s definitely an added bonus,” he says.
Jackie’s Diner in downtown Nashua recently sold a platter of 30 breakfast sandwiches, another 30 BLT sandwiches and a big kettle of soup to Romney, who was celebrating the key endorsement of New Hampshire’s GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
Getting behind the counter, Romney and Ayotte handed out free food to customers and potential voters, who spilled out on the sidewalk.
Owner Carol Montminy, who in previous primaries has served presidential candidates Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Giuliani, found it refreshing to watch Romney wait on customers and appreciated his endorsement of the chicken noodle soup.
As for the Romney economic magic lasting beyond his visit, it’s not happening.
“Things are slow right now,” Montminy says. “But this was a wonderful personal moment. I was excited to see that Mitt Romney is a genuine person.”
Things were also relatively slow last week at the Airport Diner, despite the two-day presence of CNN’s news shows.
“A lot of people are actually shy or intimidated by the idea of being on national TV,” manager Mark Fields says. “CNN takes up a few booths, but it is not a major windfall for us.
“That being said, I love the hustle- bustle and excitement that comes with the candidates’ visits,” he adds. “Mr. Gingrich has already been here three times. He just told his wife that we have the best clam chowder in New England.”
Saturated with aviation memorabilia, the Airport Diner avoids commemorating its political visits out of the concern of possibly alienating potential customers.
The New Hampshire Fisher Cats organization is equally careful, having chosen to resuscitate its retro Uncle Sam logo over the donkey-and-elephant alternative.
Nevertheless, in the baseball world, the New Hampshire primary is being stretched through August this year.
“We’ll be giving out presidential garden gnomes at the gate,” Brenner promises. “There will be a Republican gnome and a Democrat gnome. Whichever runs out first will become the Garden Gnome President.”