WASHINGTON — Is President Barack Obama worried about a surprise in the Democratic primary this January in New Hampshire?
Maybe the kind of narrow victory that hurt President George H.W. Bush in 1992, signaling weakness on his way to a crushing re-election loss? Or the even weaker win by Lyndon Johnson in 1968, the one that drove him from the race?
Obama doesn't have the kind of big-name opponent who could rally the disaffected within his own party, as anti-tax conservative Pat Buchanan did in 1992, or as anti-war candidate Gene McCarthy did in 1968.
But Obama does have a primary challenge — 13 little-known candidates have filed to be on the Democratic ballot along with him. And he's heading to New Hampshire on Tuesday, following three visits to the tiny state earlier this year by Vice President Joe Biden.
Officially, Obama's heading to New Hampshire to pitch his proposal to extend and expand a payroll tax cut beyond Dec. 31. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney laughed off a question Monday about whether Obama has political motives for his visit to the state.
"I can predict with all confidence that the president will win the New Hampshire primary in the Democratic Party," he said. "He travels all over the country, to different parts of the country, to speak about his ideas for getting this economy growing again."
Still, many of those travels are to states where he can raise money, such as California and New York, or to swing states that could go either way in the general election, such as Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.
And he's likely looking at the New Hampshire primary for a one-two punch_ running up the score in January to avoid any kind of surprise or embarrassment, while also fine-tuning his political machine in a state that could prove critical in a close general election.
"They're using the primary as a way of identifying strong supporters, recruit volunteers, and as a dress rehearsal for the big push in the fall," said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "This is part of a bigger strategy to not take some of the smaller states for granted."
Candidates normally abandon New Hampshire after the primary. But Democrats learned a painful lesson in 2000 when Al Gore paid scant attention to it, saw some of his votes siphoned off by third-party candidate Ralph Nader, and lost the state to Republican George W. Bush by 7,211 votes.
Had Gore won it and its four Electoral College votes, he would have won the presidency with exactly the 270 electoral votes needed.
Obama won the state handily in 2008, by 54 percent to 45 percent. Like everywhere, however, he's less popular now. And he could be facing Mitt Romney, whose summer house in the state and single term as governor of neighboring Massachusetts makes it home turf for him.
"They think the race is going to be very tight, and a purple state like New Hampshire could make a difference," said Fowler. "They also feel that Romney could be a real threat in New Hampshire. If he is the nominee, this state could be at risk."
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