Potential hopefuls try to curry favor in N.H.

Jerry DeLemus, a homebuilder, is on a first-name basis with Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty. Jerry DeLemus, a homebuilder, is on a first-name basis with Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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Two years ago, Jerry DeLemus was a New Hampshire homebuilder, father of five, and Sunday school teacher whose political involvement extended to occasionally holding a campaign sign on a street corner for a politician.

This year, DeLemus is on a first-name basis with national political figures, including Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, and his wife, Mary. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s people are calling and want a meeting. So do US Representative Michele Bachmann’s and Rick Santorum’s, the former US senator. DeLemus has made trips to Washington in the past year, including one earlier last month to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference at the behest of “a couple of connected friends.’’

“It’s God’s will, I suppose,’’ said DeLemus, who two years ago cofounded the Rochester 9/12 Project, a Tea Party movement-affiliated group in New Hampshire. “I’m just an ordinary citizen who saw there was a need to step forward, and this is what’s come of it.’’

DeLemus is among a newly minted batch of conservative activists whose influence is being sought by potential presidential candidates. In the first-in-the-nation primary, grass-roots activists have long been crucial gets — often old political hands who could reliably organize events where candidates shake hands, have one-on-one conversations, and create the sort of connections that are crucial in this retail politics state. This year, Tea Party adherents, the majority of them new to politics, are seen by many candidates as the grass-roots frontier and are being transformed into minor political celebrities.

“I am getting calls from Senator Santorum and Governor Pawlenty — Pawlenty has called me personally,’’ said John Burt, a newly elected state representative from Goffstown, N.H., who promotes his Tea Party-aligned views on a cable access television program he started a year ago. “ ‘Oh my God’ — that’s what I thought’’ when the calls began coming in.

The primary season, which is playing out on the Republican side and not the Democratic one because President Obama is not facing competition, has been notably quiet. Formal campaigning has not begun and major candidates are not expected to announce their ambitions for weeks to come. (Last week, Gingrich became the first to announce an exploratory bid.)

But beyond the klieg lights, hopefuls — and their staffs — have been placing calls to key Tea Party figures and others who have assumed influential positions on the conservative spectrum. They have set up meetings at diners, had coffee in homes around the state. They have brokered speaking engagements before the activists’ groups — a move that gains access to the groups’ members and helps the groups raise money because they can charge attendance fees.

“We’ve gone to New Hampshire a lot over the last year and tried to introduce ourselves,’’ said Alex Conant, a spokesman for Pawlenty. “We recognize that the Tea Party is a really important part of the conservative movement.’’

Calls to other leading Republican contenders — including Santorum, Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, and Gingrich — were not returned.

Tea Party activists have significant power in New Hampshire. In 2010, Tea Party-aligned candidates won an estimated quarter of the state’s legislative seats. The speaker of the House, William O’Brien, is a Tea Party supporter, as is the newly elected chairman of the state Republican Party, Jack Kimball.

Tom Rath, a veteran Republican strategist, cautioned that Tea Party activists and other newly risen conservative stars will be but one cog in the campaign wheel.

“The energy, passion, and commitment of these folks will be important in the primary,’’ Rath said. “But remember, the turnout for the primary will be huge and no one group will dominate. Also, independents will play a major role in the primary, and I’m not sure whether they will outweigh any other group in terms of numbers and impact.’’

Still, Rath said grass-roots support — particularly from new quarters — is crucial for primary candidates in New Hampshire. High-profile endorsements from the state’s political luminaries are nice and sought-after, but candidates have long recognized the value of enlisting local party chairmen and others who have access to voter lists, oftentimes their neighbors, and the muscle to recruit and motivate campaign volunteers.

“The key to any campaign is finding the new people,’’ Rath said. “The people who get energized by some issue, some circumstance, and want to contribute sweat equity — they’re gold.’’

Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the state’s Republican Party, agreed, saying, “The trick is to figure out which of these people are the Wizard of Oz and which have real organization and people behind them.’’

That challenge is particularly acute with the Tea Party movement. In New Hampshire, the Tea Party has no published membership roster and no elected leadership; it is composed of aligned groups across the state.

“There is no website with a phone number,’’ said Andrew Hemingway, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, which backs the Republican Party and is affiliated with the Tea Party movement. “I think [candidates] are still trying to place these people.’’

Hemingway, of Bristol, N.H., who became involved in politics two years ago, regularly hears from presumptive primary contenders. Some call to chat and establish connection. Others seek to impress with their campaign-to-be’s strength.

“They say, ‘We’ve got these people on board, and a great steering committee,’ ’’ he said.

Asked what it’s like to get solicitous calls from his party’s key figures, Hemingway said, “It’s cool to have that access. Most people won’t ever have that access. But it’s like: I live in New Hampshire and you take it for what it is.’’

DeLemus, a former Marine whose son recently deployed to Afghanistan, says he also keeps a level head about his newfound popularity.

“I’m not an ego guy,’’ he said. “It’s about the cause for me.’’

DeLemus opposes gay marriage, the Obama health care plan, and abortion. He is a proponent of more expansive Second Amendment rights. The economy, ultimately, propelled his decision to form a 9/12 group in his city of Rochester.

“I just had this vision that it was no longer enough to hold signs and listen to what was said to you,’’ he said.

Today, he fields dozens of e-mails each week from potential presidential contenders or their staff, though not Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney. He said the former Alaska governor’s silence is to be expected since she has not traveled to the state during this primary cycle, so far as he knows. But the former governor of Massachusetts has been making the rounds. Romney, he said, would be wise to place a call.

“He’s a good business guy and smart, but if he doesn’t get involved with the grass-roots people, he’s gonna have a problem.’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at