By John Toole
The Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers' straw poll today won't elect a president or finish a candidate, but the event promises to test the organizational strength of campaigns with committed Republican activists who will vote next winter.
"We like to call it a taxpayer family reunion," said Ed Naile, the group's chairman.
Ron Paul got a lift in 2007 when he won the straw poll with 65 percent of the vote. Paul didn't attend, but sent his son, now Sen. Rand Paul, as a stand-in.
Mike Huckabee did come and while he finished back in the pack, he made friends who helped him to a strong showing later in the 2008 primary.
The straw poll's influence on the primary is well established. Pat Buchanan used it to get his runs for the White House established.
Last year, the group's straw poll — which isn't limited to presidential runs — elevated the prospects of Ovide Lamontagne in the U.S. Senate race. Beforehand, Lamontagne wasn't given the best of shots to win. Afterward, a victorious Lamontagne was on his way to giving future Sen. Kelly Ayotte all she could handle in the GOP primary.
The rules are pretty straightforward.
"You buy a ticket, you get a vote," Naile said. "To win, they have to mobilize."
Candidates have to work the crowd in Hillsborough — no 20-minute speeches.
"We think it's best that candidates walk around and meet people," Naile said.
"It is fair to say that group is Tea Party affiliated, but not exclusively," said Windham Republican Chairman Travis Blais.
"You have to ask which candidates are coming," said conservative activist Corey Lewandowski of Windham, state director of Americans For Prosperity. "They have a higher probability of being successful in the CNHT straw poll."
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Congressman Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan will be there. Mitt Romney won't, but his campaign purchased a table so he can have a presence.
Santorum's point man is Mike Biundo, a veteran New Hampshire campaign strategist who knows this crowd well. Biundo managed Congressman Frank Guinta's campaign last year and Guinta topped this straw poll.
"It's very possible Rick Santorum will do very well," Lewandowski said.
"If you're Mitt Romney and you lose, it doesn't mean anything," Blais said. "The people to look at are Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Rick Perry. This says much more to them than to other candidates."
But Lewandowski said people should understand conservative favorites Bachmann, Perry and Herman Cain don't really have much in the way of campaigns here yet.
But Lewandowski will still be watching their numbers tonight. Bachmann, Lewandowski said, could do well even without much organization.
"This is her crowd," he said.
Lewandowski is watching to see how Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty do, too.
"Gov. Pawlenty has a lot of talent and resources. He's been here. He's a known quantity," Lewandowski said. "You clearly want to have a strong presence. It can only benefit you."
Doing well in New Hampshire is all about being here and meeting people like at the straw poll today, Lewandowski said.
"I tell people, 'You've got to be here to win,'" he said.
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