Here is where it happens.
In a cramped diner where the rubbing of shoulders comes from customers swiveling on red plastic stools along the counter. Where twinkies are listed as a dessert and chop suey is as international as the menu gets. Where the jukebox still works, and still blares out Peter Frampton and Aerosmith records. Where the greasy spoon has been framed and hung on the wall.
In other words, this is where America's "Masters of the Universe" get chewed over and occasionally chewed out by the American everyman. Where a politician refines the art of glad-handing and gab and glib. Where a stump speech written for the thousands must be compelling enough to pull a single man away from his meatloaf. Where any would-be president has to win a battle of the lunch box before he (or she) can claim victory at the ballot box.
Welcome to the Red Arrow Diner in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire. This local landmark has taken on national significance as presidential candidates small and large make their quadrennial pilgrimage, or at least pit stop, to this homiest of down-home eateries, trying to woo voters from the tiny state whose first-in-the-nation primary has played an outsized role in selecting the presidential nominees for the two major parties.
On Wednesday afternoon, it was Mitt Romney's turn. The Republican hopeful and former Massachusetts governor arrived just past 4 p.m. with a campaign entourage and media contingent that quickly took over the place.
Surveying the crowd, he apologized for the disruption: There are some people here who just wanted to eat their lunch. But, as it happened, most of the New Hampshirites filling the premises had come to "meet and greet" the candidate, as this pre-voting ritual is called.
And if the candidate had come with a prepared pitch - in Romney's case, for Americans to provide a "surge of support for our troops" in Iraq to accompany the surge in forces there - the diners had come prepared with pointed questions. One wanted to hear about cuts in military spending, another wanted to know about benefits for retirees, and four wanted to get Romney to back the agenda of the American Jewish World Service.
An organization that applies the Jewish teaching of tikkun olam, or healing the world, to help the developing world, AJWS dispatched three young people to spend the summer in New Hampshire training residents to push candidates on three issues: Darfur, HIV/AIDS prevention and universal education.
Their training includes information about the organization and its three major advocacy issues, but it also includes tips on how to get the candidates' attention in crowded diners and ask quick questions that, ideally, get concrete commitments to which they can then be held accountable.
At the Red Arrow, AJWS tag-teamed Romney to get him talking about HIV/AIDS, and whether he would commit to spending $50 billion dollars to combat the disease.
Romney, sensing an ambush, replied, "I'm committed to fighting AIDS globally. I have not specified a number in my budget" for the issue. He added, though, that this issue would figure in to what he termed "health care diplomacy," in which American medical know-how and resources would be used to improve the conditions of others, as well as US standing, around the world.
He elaborated on the same theme when he reportedly said in a TV interview that "Lebanon became a democracy some time ago and while their government was getting under way, Hizbullah went into southern Lebanon and provided health clinics to some of the people there, and schools. And they built their support there by having done so. That kind of diplomacy is something that would help America become stronger around the world and help people understand that our interest is an interest toward modernity and goodness and freedom for all people in the world. And so, I want to see America carry out that kind of health diplomacy."
Though Romney has repeatedly criticized the terrorist activities of the Iran-backed movement, the Washington-based National Jewish Democratic Coalition seized on the comments to criticize him. "It is the height of irony that, within weeks of saying Democrats are 'uncomfortable in recognizing evil in the world,' governor Romney would make such ill-informed remarks that cite a terrorist organization as a model for US diplomacy," NJDC executive director Ira Forman said in a statement. "Indeed, Mitt Romney's comments suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the Middle East and geopolitical realities."
But in New Hampshire, the crowd was more distressed by the question than the answer. A waitress whose daughter lacks health care for a serious illness wanted to know why fellow audience members were more concerned about health care abroad than at home.
"What about the people here," asked Michele Griffin, 39, echoing a common question in the national debate over health care and foreign aid.
Later, one of the AJWS activists, 22-year-old Carly Hope Pildis, said it was a mistake to see the issue as us versus them, since better global health care and education would help America, too.
She also said that while Romney didn't make a commitment, she wasn't deterred, "He definitely was unwilling to make a policy commitment, which is disappointing. But what's important is that he heard the questions and will continue to hear those questions until he makes these commitments."
Her co-worker, Ariel Sincoff-Yedid, 20, said that while she hadn't wanted to hear the "No" that she got to her request for a declaration of a no-fly zone in Darfur, "That's why we're asking."
For Stacey Schwartz, a New Hampshire resident and a 33-year-old mother of a three-year-old who also underwent AWJS training, participating in the process is the most important thing.
"I absolutely feel I have an obligation to use my voice, to speak up, if I have access to all the candidates, to use my access to candidates," she said while trying to keep her daughter, Rachel, from making a mess of a piece of chocolate cake taking over a dinner dish.
Schwartz said she went to an event for Democratic candidate John Edwards before connecting with AWJS. She showed up an hour early to secure a spot, but when Edwards arrived and the crowd was told to back up, she did.
"I backed up and everyone moved forward. I saw maybe his Adam's apple."
Then she found out about AWJS through her rabbi and learned how to position herself better and how to get the candidate's attention. She wanted to use her Jewish upbringing, where she had learned the value of asking "Why" to ask about issues such as Darfur where the victims were powerless and voiceless.
"I not only found my voice. I found out how to use my voice, and that's what I want to teach my daughter," she said.
So when Schwartz wasn't able to get in a question to Romney in the diner, she grabbed Rachel and ran out the door to the driveway. On the asphalt beside Romney's car, bouncing Rachel on her hip, she asked the former governor for an autograph. He kindly obliged, while getting an earful about the need for African debt relief.
As his SUV sped away from the Red Arrow and Schwartz went back to charting Rachel's progress on her chocolate cake, she ruminated on her opportunities to accost politicians.
"I seems like - I was going to say 'once in a lifetime' - but it's a once-in-four-year experience that a lot of other people don't get," Schwartz said. She intends to come back for the next candidate - and the chocolate cake.
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