WARREN, N.H. — Ask people around here about the last time a presidential candidate visited, and you get blank stares.
“[They’ve] never been here at the table as far as I know,” Lyle Moody said recently as he and the so-called “men’s coffee club” sat around their regular table at Calamity Jane’s Restaurant.
At 92, Moody is Warren’s oldest resident and unofficial historian. He’s also not alone in not being able to recall a time when presidential hopefuls campaigned in this tiny town of about 800 nestled in the White Mountain National Forest with its rocket (yes, a rocket) but no cellphone service.
New Hampshire, with its first-in-the-nation primary, is a state where residents boast about bumping into presidential hopefuls on sidewalks and in grocery stores. Voters sit in diners and living rooms, grilling the men and women who want to lead the country about Common Core education standards, immigration reform, the national debt, and foreign affairs.
But not here.
Everyone from the chairman of the selectmen to the guy filling up at the local Tedeschi Food Shop say this is a town that time — and presidential candidates — seem to have forgotten, in a state that revels in the national spotlight every four years.
“We don’t get a chance to see a real person,” said Charles Sackett, a lifelong resident and chairman of the selectmen.
The result is that candidates don’t get grilled on the issues that concern people in New Hampshire’s North Country, the largely rural region of the state north of the Lakes Region and south of Canada. And by not hearing voters questions, how do candidates know what issues they should be concerned about?
“There’s questions that people up here would ask that, in the bigger cities, don’t necessarily get asked,” said Bryan Flagg, owner of the local newspaper, Northcountry News. “Up here, it’s a little tougher to survive.”
Population decline, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the waning logging industry, and high heating bills have hit local economies hard. And the Northern Pass, a plan to bring hydroelectric power from Canada down through New England, is hugely controversial because it proposes stringing power lines through some of northern New England’s most scenic areas.
If residents had their chance to quiz the candidates, they said, two topics would come up: education and property taxes.
About 75 percent of Warren’s total $3.2 million town and school budget in 2014 — an amount one town official said “the federal government burps in a second” — paid for its one kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school, according to state figures. Most of that money comes from residential property taxes, as commercial property only accounts for about 4 percent of the local tax base, state figures show.
“A town’s school is its pride and joy. Its identity is tied up in that,” said Bob Giuda, a former state legislator and Warren’s moderator. “Rural communities are getting left behind. We’re at the tail end of the economic whip. Any economic change hits us hard.”
Life in rural New Hampshire moves at a slower pace than the rest of the state, and that’s OK with the people who live there.
This is conservative territory, a place that values its autonomy. It’s where the word “independent” has as much to do with political ideology as a skeptical view of government. Warren is a town with no zoning laws or cellphone towers.
Founded in 1763, Warren is about 40 minutes northwest of Interstate 93 and 60 to 90 minutes north of Concord depending on the road traveled. A bedroom community, it is accessible by two-lane roads that wind through postcard New England views and front yards that double as car graveyards.
It is the birthplace of Norris Cotton, a staunch Republican who represented New Hampshire in Congress for more than 20 years, and home to a Redstone rocket, the type used to launch the first American satellites and astronauts into space.
“We’re 20 miles from everywhere and 20 miles from nowhere . . . always 20 years behind,” Sackett said of his beloved town. “We didn’t get high-speed Internet until everyone else had already had it for decades.”
“Everyone was pushing for a cellphone tower. I actually pushed against that,” he said.
It’s logistics — not politics — that keeps the light of the presidential primary from shining brightly in the North Country, where the towns tend to be tiny and hard to access. But that means businesses like Warren’s new Moose Scoops Ice Cream, stay out of the spotlight too.
Three quarters of New Hampshire’s 1.3 million people live in the southeastern part of the state in the triangle formed by Portsmouth, Concord, and Nashua, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center.
“Most of the stops are going to take place where most of the voters are,” he said. “Usually, what you’ll see are stops in some of the larger towns to make sure your campaign has the appearance that it’s going all the way across the state. But they are right on 93.”
For example, just over the mountain in Woodstock, a town of about 1,200, Jim Fadden can rattle off the names of the presidential hopefuls who have swung by his family’s general store, which sits right on Route 3 and just a few miles from I-93.
Still, there are some North Country residents who seem resigned to the fact that they are not a stop on the campaign trail. The men finishing up their last cups of coffee at Calamity Jane’s Restaurant could not come to a consensus about the good – if any – that would come from a visit by presidential hopefuls.
“I wouldn’t see the point of them coming up here,” said Moody, the doyen at the table. “Just not enough people.”
“I don’t know; it depends on who it is,” offered 61-year-old Hue Wetherbee, who grew up in Warren but moved up the road to Benton after his home was destroyed by the flood waters of Hurricane Irene.
Because not much has changed since the last time Dana Leonard, another coffee club member, remembers seeing a candidate on the stump.
“Rockefeller,” Leonard recalled. “When I was a young fella.”
That was in the 1960s — and up the road in Woodsville.