DERRY, N.H. — For nearly a half century, Iowa and New Hampshire have played a pivotal role in American electoral politics. But their top place on the nominating calendar is under threat like never before.
US Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa added their voices this week to dozens of political figures who have complained their states’ stature will be undercut by Fox News’ plans to limit the first presidential debate to the top 10 GOP candidates in national polls. The network’s truncated invitation list could do the job usually handled by Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primary — winnowing a crowded field.
The signs abound that the selection process is changing as candidates shift their strategies to run a national primary campaign, instead of one that runs solely through early nominating states. On Friday, the Iowa Republican Party’s executive committee ended the Iowa Straw Poll, an organizing exercise and party fund-raiser held since 1979. No candidate had committed to competing in it this year.
“People are beginning to figure out that it is a totally different campaign this time because of a number of factors,” said Republican consultant Pat Griffin, who has worked on New Hampshire primary campaigns, including for President George W. Bush. “The idea that there are only two or three tickets for candidates to come out of Iowa and New Hampshire is malarky now.”
The candidates’ shifting priorities played out at the Adams Memorial Opera House on Tuesday, where former governor Jeb Bush of Florida made his first official stop as an announced presidential candidate. It was his first New Hampshire town hall meeting — a political hallmark in the state. But before he spoke to voters, Bush taped an hour-long interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, as Granite Staters waited more than half an hour.
Fox News’s criteria for their Aug. 6 debate in Cleveland have created an incentive for candidates to seek national name recognition instead of meeting voters in Iowa or New Hampshire. After Granite State Republicans complained last week, the New Hampshire Union Leader said it would host a forum that day for uninvited debate candidates, citing the personal spirit of the first-in-the-nation primary. Hours later, Fox News announced it would host its own televised forum earlier in the day for candidates who didn’t make the evening debate cut.
Especially for second-tier candidates such as former governor Rick Perry of Texas, the changing landscape means the most important place in New Hampshire is no longer the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester. It’s across town at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics’ satellite television studio.
While lesser-known candidates — such as US Senator Lindsey Graham — scramble to increase their national prominence, the intimacy between candidates and voters in the state suffers.
“Judge us based on the states where we always show up,” said Graham of South Carolina. “A national poll undercuts the early primary process, which has been good for the country.”
Leading candidates — including Bush, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and US Senator Rand Paul, who have all but secured a spot in the Fox News debate — probably won’t make drastic changes to their campaign strategy as just a result of the debate rules.
But their incentives have also shifted for other reasons — the proliferation of super PACs, because of increasingly relaxed campaign finance rules, coupled with the large GOP field. Candidates are spending more time courting donors, such as the visit several made last weekend to meet contributors at Mitt Romney’s retreat in Utah. In 2012, GOP candidates continued to compete deep into the primary calendar beyond Iowa and New Hampshire thanks to well-funded super PACs.
Republican consultant Tim Albrecht of Iowa, who once worked for Romney, said the winnowing process “will be a lot longer, too, because of super PACs, if nothing else.”
Much of the criticism has been directed at Fox News and its decision to limit the debate to 10 GOP candidates.
Ayotte’s comments follow protests last week from 56 members of the New Hampshire Republican elite who wrote a letter to Fox News to argue its debate was antithetical to the spirit of the nominating process. And on Wednesday, more than 100 elected officials in South Carolina sounded a similar alarm, saying the debate “undercuts the historic role of South Carolina and other early states.’’
In Iowa, the much-criticized Iowa Straw Poll in August has traditionally has been the first filter for GOP candidates. If a contender didn’t meet expectations in the poll, he or she had often dropped out — as did US Senator Elizabeth Dole, Vice President Dan Quayle, and former governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota in years past.
“Regardless of any complaints about the straw poll, had it been held and narrowed the field, it would have been better in terms of allowing the caucuses and N.H. primary to then focus more on a smaller set of [hopefully] the top candidates,” said University of Iowa political science professor Timothy Hagle.
Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans argue there’s something lost in the political process if candidates focus so much on national polls and appealing to wealthy donors: It’s the intimacy between candidate and voters, a process that many have described as the antidote to big money in politics.
For example, when former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina came to Salem, N.H., last week, she stood on a stone patio in the back of a Salem house. Without Teleprompter or microphone, she riffed on her family, career, and leadership to 40 GOP activists who could easily hear her.
Then she took eight questions from the audience on such eclectic topics as Russia, entitlement reform, education, race relations, child custody laws, and a trade deal with Asian nations. When one guest thought Fiorina didn’t answer her question on H1B immigration visas, she respectfully asked two follow-up questions.
Her appearance wouldn’t help her standing in national polls. According to those surveys, she’s currently ineligible to participate in the first debate. But this latest swing, along with several others, have helped her standing in the Granite State.
“For all of the hand-wringing going on, and there is plenty of that, I would remind everyone that candidates are still showing up and campaigning hard in these states,” said Neil Levesque, the executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.