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May 03. 2011 12:21PM

1960: Kennedy's opening drive

New Hampshire would become the cornerstone in Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy's drive to the presidency. Once he triumphed here, the other dominoes began to fall.

Kennedy would not face a serious opponent in the New Hampshire presidential preference poll. Only a handful of delegates favorable to Adlai Stevenson, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey or Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri challenged his own complete pledge slate. Kennedy's only opponent in the preference poll was an unknown political novice named Paul Fisher who manufactured ball-point pens.

A number of New Hampshire contacts had been established by Kennedy as he stroked his neighboring state in the 1950s. In 1953 he had addressed a Young Democrats banquet where shortly after his stunning upset of incumbent Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1956, after being edged by Estes Kefauver as Adlai Stevenson's running mate when Stevenson left the choice to the convention, he campaigned for the ticket in 26 states, including New Hampshire. In 1958, as the groundwork for his presidential campaign was being prepared, Kennedy had addressed another political dinner in Manchester.

The senator and his top aides maintained close ties with Democratic National Committeeman Bernard Boutin of Laconia. Assistance was provided in helping to revive the long-dormant state Democratic Party organization, including a contribution ($2,500 of the $16,500 raised) and other help for Boutin's unsuccessful 1958 gubernatorial campaign. The Democrats had not won the governorship since 1922 but Boutin would lose to Wesley Powell, a former aide to Senator Styles Bridges, by just 6,800 votes.

In an unusual display of party unity in September 1959, the Democratic State Committee endorsed the Kennedy candidacy, and the Kennedy camp authorized the committee to select the slate of delegate hopefuls pledged to him. Kennedy had unified the state's minority party as never before.

Despite the unity among both parties, a prominent New Hampshire Republican would ignite bipartisan fireworks before the votes were tabulated on March 8, 1960.

Sherman Adams, who had become enmeshed in textile mill owner Bernard Goldfine's problems with government regulatory agencies, had resigned from his White House post in September 1958. He had returned to his home in the White Mountains to write his memoirs and open the Loon Mountain ski resort. He never again became a factor in state or national politics. But the example of the once-obscure Lincoln man's rise from the governorship of one of the nation's smallest states to one of the most powerful positions in the federal government was not lost on the Hampton Falls man who occupied the governor's post in 1960 — the controversial Wesley Powell.

Vice President Richard Nixon was certain to be a candidate for President and he enjoyed the support of Senator Styles Bridges and Union Leader Publisher William Loeb.

The threat of a New Hampshire campaign for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was a matter of great concern to the Nixon camp in 1959. Robert Finch, a Nixon intimate from California, noted: "We took quite seriously the possibility of Powell's threat to join the Rockefeller campaign because, indeed, he was a powerful and unpredictable force in the New Hampshire picture. We were totally surprised with Rockefeller's withdrawal from the New Hampshire primary that year because, apart from the smallness of the state and therefore its susceptibility to large media and mail campaigns (which Rockefeller could easily have financed), the then New York governor had deep roots in the state and we thought would have mounted a powerful and perhaps successful campaign."

Rockefeller, a graduate of Dartmouth, had made an elaborate examination of his prospects for denying front-runner Nixon the nomination. He decided in late December 1959 it was a hopeless chore. One reason for the decision was the apparently insurmountable lead Nixon maintained in the polls for the initial primary.

At a news conference in Albany, Rockefeller put his Presidential ambitions on hold by stating "the great majority of those who will control the Republican convention stand opposed to my contest for the nomination...My conclusion, therefore, is that I am not and shall not be a candidate for the nomination for the Presidency. This decision is definite and final."

Governor Powell, who had ambitions to be the vice presidential nominee for the GOP, then became the state chairman for the Nixon effort. On the day before the March 8 vote, Powell charged at his monthly news conference that Kennedy had a "demonstrated softness toward Communism which the people of our state would not want to see exhibited in the White House."

Notified of the allegation while stumping in the Seacoast, Kennedy called his own news conference to rebut the charge. The Democrat said he was "disgusted that Governor Powell should attempt a smear of those proportions out of political pique."

Kennedy asked the vice president to repudiate the remarks his state chairman had made, which Nixon did. Later that same day Kennedy called for Powell's removal from the Nixon effort — a demand that was not granted.

In return, Governor Powell sent an election-eve telegram to the vice president: "The senator you defend now has straddled the communist issue since the days of the McCarthy trial. If you and the Republican Party expect to win, you had better be on the attack, lest the unjust attacks by Kennedy upon the Eisenhower administration leave the Republicans holding the bag."

Powell's own vice presidential drive, which was endorsed by William Loeb and which featured a last-minute telephone blitz, netted only 9,620 votes, far below the bench-mark Nixon had established in 1956.

Senator Kennedy had been advised by Bernard Boutin that he would receive more than double the 21,701 votes Kefauver had garnered in the previous primary. The senator had his doubts, yet the tally proved Boutin was almost right. Kennedy had 43,372 votes and Nixon received 65,204.

The total turnout of 135,109 was just slightly under the 136,179 cost in the hotly contested 1952 race, a testimonial to the unified backing both eventual nominees enjoyed in their parties.

Kennedy's ability to draw a record Democratic vote while reducing the traditional GOP margin proved new material for the publicity push across the nation that he was the one Democratic candidate who could generate more enthusiasm than his main rivals, fellow senators Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota and Lyndon Johnson of Texas.

New Hampshire would prove to be the opening round in what became a Kennedy-Nixon race in November, which the Massachusetts senator won by just 114,673 votes.


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