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Come back, New Hampshire

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiled as he arrived at a campaign stop at the White Mountain Athletic Club in Waterville Valley, NH.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiled as he arrived at a campaign stop at the White Mountain Athletic Club in Waterville Valley, NH.Jim Cole/File/AP

What happened, New Hampshire?

When I knew you, you had standards. Anybody who wanted your votes for president really had to earn them, holding umpteen town hall meetings, answering gazillions of tough questions from undecideds. Back in the day you loved Republicans like Senator John McCain, but man, you made him work for his wins.

I was there in the run-up to the 2000 primary, at scores of those town hall meetings, listening to his voice grow hoarse as he patiently fielded queries on domestic and foreign policy. Legions of you lined up at the microphones. You were magnificent.

It seems ludicrous now, but McCain captured your hearts by talking about campaign finance reform, and about serving a cause greater than oneself. Now we have those detestable SuperPACs, and candidates trucking in pure ego.

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We have the odious Donald Trump, who has managed to convince an alarming number of you that he is somehow the most genuine candidate in the field.

And he's done it, not by working hard and meeting you where you live, which is what you have long demanded of candidates, but by zooming in and out on his jet, staying only long enough to spew bile and spout useless generalities. A beautiful wall will solve all our immigration issues. Something terrific will replace Obamacare. Let's protect ourselves from terrorism by excluding Muslims.

Does any of this answer the kinds of questions you seemed so eager to ask before? Nah, but who cares? Does it matter that this particular straight talker is an utterly unabashed liar? Nope. He's an American success story! He's on TV! Enough with the political correctness!

Gaffes that would have ended a candidacy in other cycles seem only to strengthen Trump's appeal. You're not bothered by the bigotry, or by the fact that he's clueless about actual issues (Boy, was he lost in Thursday's debate when asked about nuclear weapons). And if none of that gives you pause, it's a good bet Trump's love-fest with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin won't trouble you, either. Sure, Putin murders journalists and opponents, Trump said on Friday, but "at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country." Delightful.

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You seem much angrier than you used to be. You've had it with Washington, with Democrats and the GOP. Some who have watched Granite State politics for a long time say you want to turn government upside down so badly that you've fallen in love with this empty suit who says he wants it too.

"They're falling for it because, in their mind, he is the only guy standing up and speaking out against everything traditional in politics," said Mike Dennehy, who managed McCain's campaigns in New Hampshire in 2000 and 2008. "So they're willing to vote for an outrageous outsider like Donald Trump."

Dennehy is appalled by the despicable, un-American things Trump says. He has plenty of company among Granite State Republicans. In November, Party Chair Jennifer Horn told the Globe she didn't think Trump would prevail in New Hampshire because "shallow campaigns that depend on bombast and divisive rhetoric do not succeed in New Hampshire." Trump operatives, as thin-skinned as the man himself, are now trying to remove her.

You used to see right though this kind of thing, New Hampshire. Well, yes, there was your strange romance with Pat Buchanan, but that was long ago. And this is worse. Former governor and party elder John H. Sununu is convinced you're falling for a guy who isn't even truly conservative on key issues, like taxation and healthcare.

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"They're going for the outlandish wrapping but they're not reading the label," he said.

Still, Sununu says he clings to hope that the New Hampshire he knew, with its famously discerning and demanding voters, will reappear in coming weeks. When "the serious electorate" engages, Trump will be over.

So, he's not despairing?

"I am not," Sununu said. "But I am lighting candles."


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com