Manchester, NH - Just below the surface of those passionate souls who came out Tuesday to support their favorites in the St. Anselm College presidential debate was a hint disorganization and lack of focus. It says much about Republican voters around the country, and especially in more independent-minded New Hampshire.
The pre-debate rally had its share of true believers, but numbers were sparse compared to previous elections, and to crowds Democrats have drawn of late.
Ron Paul's supporters were greatest in number, vocal strength, and creativity. They chanted frequently, lines like "Is there a doctor in the House?" (Paul is known as "Dr. No" for his consistent votes against almost any expansion of government) and many others advocating an Iraq pullout, abolishing the Federal Reserve, and saying no to a national ID card. Paul's crowd was almost exclusively male, and had the passion that ideological candidates often engender.
Mitt Romney had a relatively strong contingent that was vocal early on, but seemed to tire of it. That the state he was recently governor of is less than an hour away surely helps.
John McCain's group was sizeable and almost as vocal as Paul's, while Rudy Giuliani seemed to have a few more people, but many straggled in at the end and seemed quiet and disorganized.
The only other candidate with a presence to speak of was Tom Tancredo, whose supporters made up for their lack of size with pure amplification. They blew referee's whistles and sported cow bells around their necks. Several assured me the latter had no symbolic significance, they just made a lot of noise.
Two of Tancredo's supporters got in the face of a man from PrioritiesNH, a New Hampshire group dedicated to paring the Pentagon's budget "on obsolete Cold War and nuclear weapons and invest significant funds into programs like education, healthcare, and energy independence." Insisting that the War on Terror is "black and white, good versus evil," they blasted the man for his naivete, while the man responded with a cool statement of the organization's rationale and ideas. I don't think they ended up agreeing.
Reporters would walk by to take photos or video, or to interview someone in front of the line, at which point the group in line of sight to a camera would start chanting on cue.
Overall, it seemed to support the idea that this is a party in transition. The old alliances that make up the Republican party are fraying if not broken. Many supporters seemed genuine, but unsure of what ideas joined them together.
You could see it on stage at the debate: one after another candidates ripped George W. Bush for his incompetence. When a president is on the ropes with an approval rating in the high 20s one expects that, but there is something more to it. People are questioning why they are Republicans. Why has their party abandoned its principles? Were some of those principles wrong, or perhaps once right but no longer so? What does the fact that even a majority of Republicans favors increased environmental protection mean for conservatism?
The people I met really do support their candidate, but overall there's a tentativeness about the future I haven't seen in my lifetime. The party is in the middle of soul searching and re-examining itself. I see that as a hopeful sign. Blaming someone else is always the easiest way out, and though there is plenty of that going on too, the amount of genuine internal debate is reason for optimism.