Campaign supporters rally for candidates outside debate

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(Host) In New Hampshire, the early crucible of the presidential campaign, voters pay close attention to the candidates when they come through town. As VPR’s John Dillon found out while roaming the crowd at this week’s debate in Durham, emotions are already high.

(Sound of crowd cheering for candidates) “We want Joe!” “Let’s go, Edwards! Let’s go!”

(Dillon) Inside the theater at the University of New Hampshire, the candidates and their staffs huddled in preparation for the debate. Outside in the frigid air, it was a more basic shouting contest between rival factions.

(Sound of supporters arguing with each other) “Hey! You take that back! If I come over there, you two are sorry! Take that back!”

(Dillon) Lined up on opposite sides of the street, thousands of supporters cheered their own candidate – and jeered at each other.

But the campaign supporters were also focused on the weeks ahead to the January 27 primary. Those who oppose Howard Dean were quick to discount the significance of the endorsement Dean won from former vice president Al Gore. Al Farnell is a retired truck driver from Salem and a member of the Teamsters Union local 633. He supports Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt and predicts Dean will lose to George Bush.

(Farnell) “If he gets the nomination, Bush is going to walk in there.”

(Dillon) Farnell says he’s for Gephardt because of the candidate’s long record in support of labor unions.

(Farnell) “His father was a Teamster. He’s the only one that worked his way through college. He’s the only one that never, ever has voted against the working person, ever as a congressman.”

(Dillon) Peter Forsyth of Dover stands in the line holding a sign for retired General Wesley Clark. Forsyth also considers Clark more electable than Dean.

(Forsyth) “When it comes right down to presidential appearance and presentation of issues and so on, I think Clark is the best. That’s why I’m here freezing my hands and toes off.”

(Dillon) New Hampshire voters know that despite the high-profile endorsements and the countless polls, theirs is the vote that counts. And this year, they’re wearing that passion on their sleeves. As they walked away from the crowd, two John Kerry supporters shrugged off the news of the Gore endorsement. The couple didn’t want to give their names.

“Well you do have to remember, Gore did lose. We’re going with the winner. We’re going with Kerry.”

(Dillon) But the enthusiastic Dean crowd saw the endorsement as affirmation of their candidate’s successful strategy. Who else, they asked, wants to beat George Bush more than Al Gore?

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Durham, New Hampshire.

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