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In N.h., A Parallel Opportunity

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KEENE, N.H. -- At a retirement home here on a recent Monday morning, a
young man asked presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) about
federal drug raids on people smoking marijuana for medical purposes.

Two hours later and 80 miles away on the campaign trail, another concerned
citizen waited patiently to ask former Vermont governor Howard Dean that
same question at a town meeting in Exeter.

That evening in Concord, the state capital, 10 protesters picketed the
local Comcast cable television office because the company refused their ads
outlining each presidential candidate's position on marijuana issues.

An uninitiated observer could be forgiven for thinking a full-blown
marijuana movement had sprung up in famously conservative New Hampshire.
And that, said activist Aaron Houston of the Washington-based Marijuana
Policy Project, was the point. "Everyone is paying attention now, and it
gives us the opportunity to get our message out," he said.

As the Jan. 27 presidential primary here nears, Houston's crew has plenty
of company along New Hampshire's other campaign trail. Capitalizing on
media attention -- and the unrivaled access to candidates the political
culture here affords -- interest groups are waging a parallel drive to push
their issues to the top of the national political agenda.

Employing the same grass-roots tactics used by presidential campaigns in
this state -- and in Iowa, where Democrats caucus one week earlier -- they
distribute pamphlets door to door, advertise on television and turn up at
events to make sure that whenever and wherever the presidential hopefuls
appear, certain issues are discussed.

"The vast majority of people who show up are regular voters who want to
hear what [the candidates] have to say," said Jennifer Donahue, a political
analyst at Saint Anselm College's New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "But
there is a vocal, and very organized, subset, who are there to push an
agenda. This has exploded in the last two election cycles."

"You know you're going to get asked about some things over and over again,"
said Colin Van Ostern, Edwards's New Hampshire press secretary. "You just
get used to it."

During the 2000 campaign, a man in a rabbit costume soaked with fake blood
followed Vice President Al Gore around the state to protest scientific
testing on animals for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
(PETA). Gore also generated national headlines when, in response to a
question from a Medical Marijuana Project volunteer, he seemed to endorse
pot smoking by terminally ill patients, a break with Clinton administration

This year, interest groups with paid staff in this state are more
sophisticated and involved then ever, veteran observers said. Most are
locally run branches of national organizations.

Perhaps most prominent are the ubiquitous, purple-T-shirt-clad activists of
New Hampshire for Health Care (and its affiliated organization, Iowa for
Health Care). Funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU),
which claims 750,000 health care workers among its members, the group has
placed signs in the Manchester Airport that greet every arriving candidate
with "Running for President? Health care better be your priority."

New Hampshire for Health Care, which wants its issue to be preeminent in
the primary campaign, says it has signed up close to 50,000 supporters here
and a team of 1,000 volunteers in their purple T-shirts. They have
succeeded in passing a resolution at 121 New Hampshire town meetings
calling on elected officials to offer solutions to help solve what they
term a national "health care crisis."

With seven paid staff workers here -- and an equal number in Iowa -- the
group is as large and well organized as many presidential campaigns and is
preparing a get-out-the-vote strategy to ensure supporters show up at the

Though the SEIU endorsed Dean, a physician, the New Hampshire group will
not make an endorsement. "We want people to have the information they need
to make an informed choice," said Matt Burgess, a spokesman for New
Hampshire for Health Care.

Then there is the New Hampshire chapter of the Sierra Club, which favors
decreasing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. And the American Friends
Service Committee's Granite State chapter advocates for peace, fair trade
and affordable housing.

The Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, which opposes the
proliferation of atomic weapons, has two paid staffers in the state and
aired television ads this fall. Every Child Matters, which promotes
preschool health and social programs, held candidate forums at the
University of New Hampshire in October and November, featuring several
Democratic contenders.

Not to be outdone, PETA deployed a man in a carrot suit, who it said is
running for president on a platform of vegetarianism.

"It's no secret why we pick New Hampshire and Iowa for these things. You
really get a face-to-face conversation with candidates that people around
the country don't get," said Catherine Corkery of the Sierra Club's New
Hampshire chapter, who sends out weekly updates of the candidates'
schedules to 5,000 members statewide and has helped train volunteers.

Last week, as Edwards signed his book, "Four Trials," at a Borders
bookstore in Concord, a young woman wearing a Sierra Club sticker waited
quietly in line, clutching her copy. An Edwards aide told her there would
be no time for questions. Undeterred, Elise Annunziata asked Edwards about
fuel economy standards. "I appreciate what you guys are doing here," he
told her, after a vague answer.

Annunziata then hustled to her car to catch a Dean speech at a high school
in nearby Pembroke. Standing in the back of the crammed auditorium, she
waved a sign that said "Americans for Clean Energy" and cheered and
whistled when Dean said he believes sport-utility vehicles and light trucks
should be more energy efficient. "Him saying that on the record was a big
step," she said.

But some observers in these early primary states that have come symbolize
the accessibility of politics say the heavy involvement of interest groups
can lead to distorted notions of what is important to voters.

"They tend to represent the more extreme wings of the parties, which
creates a misleading sense of what people up here care about," said Donahue
of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "It can also manipulate press

The activists say they are simply exercising their right to be heard and
are serving a valuable purpose. "These are issues we care about
passionately, and we are trying to elevate their visibility through the
campaign," said Martha Yager of the American Friends Service Committee.

Over the summer, Yager's group offered weeklong training sessions for
volunteers in the art of effectively bringing their issue to the
candidates' attention during campaign events -- or what she calls

Meanwhile, Houston of the Marijuana Policy Project has compiled grades for
each candidate's views on marijuana issues on his group's Web site. Rep.
Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) gets an A-plus; President Bush, an F.

One of Houston's charges, Linda Macia, sneaked into the filming of a
half-hour infomercial for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) that aired in
New Hampshire this month.

In response to her question about medical marijuana, Lieberman told her:
"You know what? I'm glad you're here, 'cause you've asked me that three or
four times, and I told you I was going to look at the evidence and give you
an answer." He said he could accept doctor-prescribed marijuana use by
patients who do not get relief from traditional painkillers.

"He's getting there," said Houston, the group's only paid employee in the
state. "There's still a month to go."

Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2003 The Washington Post Company
Page: A03
Contact: letters@washpost.com
Website: Washington Post: Breaking News, World, US, DC News & Analysis